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Monday, May 31, 2010

Memories are made of this

The Hungarian violinist Gyorgy Pauk was on "Desert Island Discs". By the time he was four both his parents had disappeared into labour camps, never to return. He said he had no memory of even a kiss from them. It was only when he said this that it struck me just how memorable even the most glancing flesh-on-flesh contacts can be. My parents have been gone a long time but if I close my eyes I can still remember the texture and the smell of my close encounters with them, most of them in early life. I can feel my mother's lips on my cheek and the proud weight of my father's hand on my knee as we travelled to his work. It's somehow more remarkable because I wasn't making any effort to remember at the time. Had I known, of course, I would have been concentrating.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Probably the most educational film of the decade

I'm not saying that "Good Hair" is a film that changed my life but it's certainly a film that will change the way I look at a large part of the population. It's a brilliant documentary made for HBO which comes out here soon on DVD. It's about black women and their relationship with their hair. This relationship, I discover, is a hundred times more complex, expensive and time-consuming than that of their white counterparts. Chris Rock, who presents the film, finds out the staggering lengths that black women will go to in their pursuit of straight, flowing hair. He learns about the wigs that black women formerly wore (this is what Tommy Tucker was urging his baby to put on in "High Heel Sneakers"), the staggering multi-million dollar trade in "relaxants", the creams that temporarily remove the natural kink in "nappy" hair, and then looks at the weaves sported by the superstars and those who aspire to look like them. He travels to India to find out where the hair they wear in Compton and Harlem comes from and he visits the annual hair fair in Atlanta, Georgia where he finds that while African Americans only account for 12% of the US population they're responsible for 80% of the money spend on hair care products. The pain and expense these people are prepared to go to is genuinely astounding. The film can't help touching on all manner of issues - from racial stereotyping through fashion and economics to the rules regarding touching a black woman's hair during sex (the only rule is don't) and the fact that the haircare trade is Asian-owned - and features more engaging, candid and savvy interviewees than you'll see in a whole year of documentaries, partly because it doesn't feature one academic or journalist. You can get a good idea of it here. I can't recommend it too highly.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Could paywalls make people nicer?

The Times paywall may have one interesting consequence. People who've paid may be more willing to post their comments on the site. If they're in the company of other people who have made a similar investment they will assume they're less likely to be the victim of a rhetorical drive-by than they might have been in the past. In the last few years, as newspaper sites have been an open prairie, they've been magnets for people who just wanted to unload a few prejudices before moving on and the flagrant lack of respect for other people's right to a view has made you tremble. There's a difference between a debate among Times readers and a forum in which a lot of people have only turned up to bait the paper's core constituency and to make themselves feel better by simply venting.

I note that The Independent have at the same time taken steps to make it easier for posters to use their Facebook or Twitter names. It will be interesting to see how this works. Our experience on The Word site, which is an oasis of civility in the human zoo, is that people prefer to use screen names because that way they don't draw an employer's attention to the fact that they might be posting on the firm's time. However, whether anonymous or not, the posters do seem to accept that the forum they have is worth having and that they have a shared responsibility to maintain it. Is it possible that something similar could happen on a bigger stage?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Who's a wedding present for?

Somebody I know is going to a wedding. Being a wedding guest can be an expensive business. Weddings often involve a party in the evening. This tends to entail an overnight stay. If you're traveling and staying overnight as the head of a grown-up family with plus-ones, as I have in the past, it can cost you the best part of a thousand pounds. Anyway, the wedding that my associate is going to is the wedding of two people who've been living together for a number of years. This means that they already have many of the things that couples getting married traditionally had as wedding gifts. We got a vacuum cleaner and some pans, for instance.

Marrying couples in 2010 already have all the pans and vacuum cleaners they require. Therefore this couple have hinted to some of their friends that they would rather have money. I argue that this wasn't a good idea, not least because their honeymoon is in Las Vegas, which rather suggests that my associate's money could go straight to the house on the first night. It's being suggested that I'm an old skinflint saying that they shouldn't get what they want and it shouldn't make any difference if they want to fritter it. That's their business.

I've been thinking about this. It strikes me that a wedding gift is not like other gifts. It's not actually for "the happy couple". It's supposed to be a contribution to setting people up in life. I remember couples in the past asking for something for their "bottom drawer". This always made me picture crisp new sheets. People accepted that it was perfectly legitimate to ask for things for their bottom drawer. If you were buying things on people's wedding list you weren't just gratifying the desires of the couple. You were contributing to the setting up of a home and by extension a family and, by further extension, society.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How to manage The Big Reveal

They've been unveiling the Olympic mascots tonight. Unveiling is a game you can never win. I haven't seen these mascots but I feel sorry for the people who had to do the unveiling and submit to the instant reaction from the web. This is particularly trying on Twitter, where people's fingers are walking long before their brain has arrived at any opinion.

I've spent long hours of my career standing in front of board meetings, investors and other interested parties and I've done everything in my power to avoid the moment of the reveal, whether it's a name, a design or the most nebulous concept. The reveal transfers the power from the people who've done a lot of thinking about the problem to the people who haven't. If the latter group are less than convinced they don't do the sensible thing, which is to reserve judgement; they instantly form themselves into a hanging jury and condemn the solution out of hand.

Two people can make a design decision. One to do and one to comment. Three can manage it if they've got good chemistry. Any number greater than that is asking for trouble. If you're going to do a reveal you should make sure that you've got a handful of key opinion formers on side long before you lift the curtain. The rest will wait a mini-second before uttering an opinion and will fall in behind the tiny minority whose opinion counts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

My weekend away in Newcastle

This weekend I went to Newcastle. I haven't been there for more than twenty years. You tend to follow well-trodden paths as you get older, dictated largely by family, holiday and business. It was only when New Writing North invited me to take part in a panel on "Writing About Music" at the magnificent Sage in Gateshead with a concert by Randy Newman thrown in on the Sunday evening that I had the chance to go.

One of the odder features about this kind of weekend away is the way you bump into people you've known for years (I met Tim de Lisle from Intelligent Life at the Randy Newman concert and we went for a drink at the Crown Posada, a wonderful pub recommended by a Twitter friend), people you think you know because you've heard them so much on the radio (Ian McMillan was the MC of the whole Words and Music event and proved to be an enthusiastic follower of the Word podcast), people you've never met before (I went for an Indian meal with Ivan Hewitt from the Telegraph and we found ourselves alongside a twelve strong party of Indian ladies who were whiling away the time waiting for their food by playing bingo) and a few Word readers who came up to say hello. It was a most civilised way to spend the Sunday afternoon and evening on the banks of the Tyne.

Contrast this with Saturday night when I had one pint in the Crown Posada and then an excellent meal at Oldfields before wandering round the City as the stag and hen parties began to muster. The women were wearing identical tee shirts and pink Deely boppers, the men in shirts and jeans apart from one member in demeaning drag; it all seemed to be driven not so much by hedonism as a weary sense of duty. I turned in early. Given the dimensions of my room not much else was feasible.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eight things I learned at the Sony Awards

To the Sony Awards, there to see eight media truths being acted out.
1. The day of embargoes is past. The Telegraph's media editor had been given a list of the winners, written them up and given it to his production people with strict instructions not to publish before a certain hour. Of course they disregarded his orders and so anyone who really wanted to know if they'd won could look on the web. Inevitable really.
2. The thing we require from presenters is energy. Chris Evans was in charge. He was as good as anybody I've ever seen, pushing all thirty-eight categories along while making sure that the most deserving got their golden moment.
3. As prizewinner David Attenborough observed, compared to radio TV is easy.
4. An audience of radio professionals is better mannered than its inky equivalent.
5. Breakfast show presenters look each other up and down like gunfighters. When Christian O'Connell and Johnny Vaughan came up you could see Evans bristle.
6. People who get paid for introducing pop records on the radio would be well advised to look in the mirror every morning and remind themselves that they have one of life's cushier numbers; we don't need to know about their children.
7. There's something uniquely undignified about being introduced as FHM's "fourth sexiest woman in the world".
8. Everyone over 60 is "legendary".

Monday, May 10, 2010

Is this the election nobody wanted to win?

Halfway through the football season it became a pundit's commonplace to remark that this was the Premiership title that nobody wanted to win. If they wanted it, the argument ran, the main contenders wouldn't be losing so many games.

I feel the same about the election. The three main parties would probably prefer it if this weekend's negotiations could go on and on: Brown because that's his only hope of avoiding oblivion, Clegg because he suddenly has to decide what his party stands for (which will come as unpleasant surprise for at least half the people who voted for them) and Cameron because he knows that Mervyn King wasn't joking when he predicted that whoever forms the next government is doomed to stay out of office for a generation.

Although "the public", whoever they are, make noises about wanting the politicians to come to some agreement in the name of the national interest, they may also wish this cup to pass from them for as long as possible because they appear united in saying what they don't want (Andrew Rawnsley wrote an excellent piece pointing out that "there is both an anti-Conservative majority and an anti-Labour majority in Britain") and rather less willing to face an immediate future which is going to be tougher than anyone reading this blog has ever known.

We've already seen what Greece thinks of it all. This morning on the radio someone was saying that Spain's government is spending double what it takes in on tax revenue. And one poll before the election said that 75% of the British public thought our nearly two hundred billion deficit could be made up on efficiency savings. I wouldn't want to be the person who had to tell them just how wrong they are. Don't be surprised if the politicians keep talking.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Do they still make shocking beauties like Louise Brooks?

I've been watching some old Louise Brooks films. Hollywood has always been full of gorgeous young women but I don't see many today who have the destabilising beauty of Brooks and a few others (Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Vivien Leigh) during Hollywood's Golden Age. When you see Brooks on screen its not a figure of speech to say you have to catch your breath, much as you do near the beginning of Rear Window when Grace Kelly's face looms over James Stewart. In fact it's more than beauty. With images like this you can see what Marlowe was getting at when he talked about "the face that launch'd a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium". Scarlett Johansson's very lovely, of course, but, well, she couldn't start a war.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Come here and say that: do the anonymous deserve a response?

On the day we exercise our right to do the only thing that we really *need* to do anonymously, which is vote, I'm been thinking about how people on the web prefer to remain nameless when they're voicing the sentiments that are clearly closest to their hearts. This is rum if you think about it.

Many of the people who post comments in response to my humble mutterings in this place do so under assumed names. This doesn't bother me much, particularly since they're generally responding in the spirit of the blog. If I could visualise this spirit it would be a community of seals keeping a bright red beach ball in the air. But every now and then the door is opened to admit a gust of arctic air and a person with a grievance, not so much against the post or the poster as against someone or something that this post puts into their mind. And then you have to decide, do I respond openly to somebody who isn't being similarly open?

In the new issue of The Word there's an interview with Rob Manuel of the nerd community B3TAin which he mentions the fact that he is more inclined to let correspondents have their own way than engage in fruitless argument. He likens this process to dealing with his four-year-old in that the diplomatic thing to do is let them have their hollow victory. That's one way of dealing with it. Mark "Mr Geniality" Ellen always writes back to even the most splenetic emails and generally finds that people are instantly mollified by having any kind of response. A subscriber to a magazine is, however, in a privileged position. They've paid their money and are entitled to demand some satisfaction.

It's not the same "out there". When I read many of the "comments" on the web their authors seem to be reaching for a tone of indignation and spite that no actual human being in real life would ever allow themselves to use. Have you ever *read* the comments to even the most anodyne blogs on The Guardian? Aren't these people supposed to be the peacemakers? To judge by the tenor of their comments many of them seem to be sitting atop a volcano of undischarged emotional lava. Maybe they're less interested in getting an answer than just letting it all out. Maybe the act of saying something is more important than its likely effect on anyone else.

Maybe it's all a necessary counterweight to the increasing conformity of the Gap generation. When I go into the average working environment nowadays, particularly the ostensibly "creative" ones, the atmosphere is one of quiet professionalism and a certain conformity. There's no noise, no banter, no larger than life. I often wonder if a couple of feet below the brows furrowed with pleasant concentration their tappety-tappety fingers are sending forth monsters.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Looking at an old copy of Smash Hits


I just came upon this edition of Smash Hits from 1990. Flicking through it I'm reminded of how difficult it is to keep any kind of perspective on pop, simultaneously the most ephemeral and also the most enduring branch of show business. The cover stars are Elton John and Adamski. Elton was doing one of his periodic blood transfusions in which he sidled up to whoever was the hot new thing and made a record with them. He's done it with George Michael, Eminem, Lady Gaga and probably lots of people, like Adamski, who could walk past you in the street today without being recognised. The intro to the feature feels the need to explain who Elton is. "He's been around for twenty years," it thralls. Well, since then he's been around another twenty, as has Kylie, who's the centrespread. As has Robert Smith who reviews the singles and Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys and George Michael, who all have full-page ads in the issue. There are a few, such as Twenty Four Seven, who were never heard of again, but then I'd probably find that one of them has been writing huge hits for some chartbuster of today. The back cover poster of MC Hammer looks a bit comical as does the New Kids On The Block poster special. But even the featured acts who don't have smash hits any more, such as Sean Ryder and A-ha, still loom large and could probably kick up a little dust if they put a new record out. Jason Donovan is still a big enough name to be starring in a West End musical. Whitney Houston, also featured, has been the centre of a storm quite recently, which proves that her name still means something long after her actual music has run its course. What's that line from Sunset Boulevard? "I'm still a big star. It was just the pictures got small."

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Today I Googled "British Prime MInisters who were not elected" and got this

It was on a forum called Indian Officer. I know it's not accurate and that Winsten Charchil was eventually elected, as was Jhon Major and who knows, the same thing may happen to Garden Brown, but what it does demonstrate, apart from the enduring charms of Indian English, is that in this country it's quite unusual to simply get elected as prime minister. Whereas once you happen to be there or thereabouts when the previous incumbent resigns or gets ill, you can simply move next door and we'll tolerate you.