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Friday, July 30, 2010

The real Barbara Hepworth

This young flapper, who looks as though she's learned the secret of life and is keeping it to herself, is the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, as she was about to embark on her brilliant career.

As a girl she attended Wakefield Girls High School. Forty years later, my sister, who is also called Barbara Hepworth, sat the entrance exam for the same school. One of the teachers chirruped brightly to my parents, "we can only hope she'll do as well as her illustrious namesake." My parents, who didn't stay abreast of the visual arts, smiled thinly and pretended they knew what the teacher was going on about.

Anyway, the Hepworth Wakefield is a major gallery opening next year. I've tried to interest them in getting my sister to cut the ribbon. They've not bitten so far. Mind you, she hasn't agreed either.

What musicians are thinking when they look at the audience

I was talking to a young musician friend recently. He plays in his own band but also goes out regularly doing covers in pubs. "You've no idea," he said, "how difficult it is to get people to listen."

I've been thinking about this ever since. Maybe part of the reason I've been able to persuade musicians like Chris Difford, Mary Gauthier and Barb Jungr to come along to True Stories Told Live and just perform for ten minutes is because they know how precious somebody's undivided attention is. In some ways they're happier playing to a listening audience for ten minutes than competing for the attention of a bigger, paying crowd for much longer.

I'm always amazed by the resilience musicians show in walking out in front of people who would clearly be happier drinking, eating, talking or being entertained by someone else. I try to put myself in their shoes and imagine how the world looks from the other side of the monitors. I often wonder why they don't just walk off.

I was thinking about this again this morning while looking at Amy Rigby's excellent blog. She's an American musician who's married to Wreckless Eric. They live in France and play wherever they can. This never was an easy life and it's harder than ever right now. There's no record company, no management, no structure, no career path, just a life. Unlike many musicians Amy Rigby is perceptive enough to notice the audience and candid enough to write about them. This is a show the other night:

Today I'm recovering from our gig at the Site Corot last night. Held in an unused auberge in a lovely spot near a river, next to some old glove factories, it took five meetings and three months to organize. Many people showed up, having been told we were either a) a "rhythm and blues" group or b) country music. They stayed for about three songs and the rest of the set we played to our usual ten friends and the few assorted French people too polite to desert us. But the river made a nice sound and we still remembered how to play.

The dread and anticipation, the inevitable misrepresentation, the evening that peters out before it is meant to, the embarrassed silences, the battering taken by the confidence: sounds like nothing so much as a blind date.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

People take cabs when they think they're important

Half a year in, haven't lost the shiver of pleasure that comes with telling cab driver, "Conde Nast building, please."
It would be unkind to mention the name of the person who tweeted this yesterday. There's nothing wrong with a young person being really excited that they've got a job on a New York fashion magazine. What's interesting is the reference to the cab, which the tweeter probably didn't even notice.

There are many legitimate reasons for taking a cab: to complete a journey difficult to make by public transport, to transport heavy packages or for safety late at night, for instance. (Obviously it can't be for convenience because in London cabs spend most of their times in traffic jams.) However the impulse that causes people to raise their arms to the noonday traffic and take a cab is the heart-pounding, almost erotic feeling that they are far too important to be transported any other way. The fact that their employers are happy to refund cab expenses in certain jobs confirms them in this feeling that their work is of an order that demands they be moved about separately from the rest of us, that they be not impeded in any way and that, wherever possible, they be given the solitude to think about their next move. They're about status, not transport.

During economic boom nobody bats an eyelid. It's different right now. If I took cabs for work I would be keeping pretty quiet about it at the moment. Spotlights are being shone hard on the running expenses of public bodies and the amount of money being splashed on cabs does rather stand out. If you've got a moment, just Google "taxi expenses" for a selection of eye openers. This is just one.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Where's the 6 Music of talk radio?

For a couple of months earlier this year the nation discussed the future of a minority music station as if its survival were the thin membrane separating civilisation from the abyss. The debate around 6 Music essentially hinged on whether there was only one kind of pop music or whether there were many. It was concluded there were many and 6 music was a sufficiently distinct variety to preserve.

Shouldn't there be a similar debate about whether the BBC could be providing more than a couple of varieties of speech radio? At the moment we have the news, arts and lifestyle mix of Radio Four; we also have the news, sport and phone-ins mix of Five Live. Both are admirable but it's clear that they do not cover the full range of what licence fee payers might wish to listen to.
Three things made me think about this.

Firstly, the appointment of a new controller of Radio 4 spotlights the peculiar challenge of introducing innovation in a place where listener satisfaction is so high. Anything new has to come by removing what is already there, which will be fiercely loved by somebody. If there is any change at Radio Four it will be at the margins.

Secondly, the uneasy introduction of "Men's Hour" on Five Live demonstrates how stylistically inelastic BBC stations are. The controllers have a highly-tuned idea of what fits. After a while the listeners become just as sensitive to what jars, which makes any innovation difficult.

Thirdly, I was listening to This American Life, Ira Glass's long-running show for NPR in the States, and wondering why British radio, for all its qualities, can't produce anything similarly soulful, hip and clever. The answer, at least to a certain extent, is it wouldn't fit anywhere.

There's no use looking to the commercial radio industry to provide anything like this because there isn't the advertising to support it. However you would have thought that the BBC, even in its current hair shirt mode, could divert a tiny amount of its budget (maybe the bit marked "taxis"?) to send up a probe of some kind to see if there is some new way of providing speech-based entertainment.

6 Music was saved on the basis that it did something that the commercials couldn't and, for many people, justified the licence fee on its own. Couldn't the same thing apply with a new form of speech radio? And surely it doesn't have to be a bureaucracy? Might it be possible to do something cheap and cheerful, without the normal overheads? Could it not curate material coming in from other sources rather than operating in the belief that all good ideas come from the centre? Why not start its own pirate ship? The web is teeming with talent and ideas which would benefit from some kind of broadcast outlet and at the moment digital radio has no reason to exist. This seems an opportunity to kill a number of birds with one stone.

Everywhere in media - whether it's in the big publishing companies or people running websites from their sheds - operators are having to contemplate doing things in an entirely new way. They're driven by necessity. The BBC, the only organisation in the media that has at least a rough idea of its revenue for the next few years, could innovate out of choice. I think they'd be surprised how much support they would get.

Why do the British press keep on getting burned by Hollywood?

Once again a British tabloid, in this case the News of The World, has to pay some American movie stars, in this case Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, a lot of money for falsely claiming that their marriage is at an end. You wonder why British hacks in Covent Garden or Wapping persist in pretending that they know what's going on with the domestic circumstances of faraway film actors who spend most of their time behind an expensive wall of PR deceit. These people's lives are so unusual and so completely consumed by their careers that it's possible that even they don't know how they stand, let alone some hack Googling away in London whose knowledge of Hollywood is limited to reading the odd feature in Empire.

Nonetheless every week our news stands groan with magazines claiming to know what Jen said to Brad this week. They can't have a clue. Think about it. If they did know what happened behind closed doors in Hollywood on Thursday night then they would have a highly-placed mole who would be looking for an Andrew Morton-style book deal. If they're just resorting to the same old scuttlebutt as everyone else they may as well be reading Perez Hilton. What eats away at the print media is the conviction that if they keep on speculating about a celebrity marriage then experience suggests that one of these days they'll be right. But guessing may be becoming a prohibitively expensive business.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Googling classes

Poet Jackie Kay is reading her autobiography "Red Dust Road" on Radio 4 at the moment. I only caught the latter half of yesterday's broadcast but she described how she traced her Nigerian father. She'd never met him but she knew his name and that he was an academic. She didn't know how to go about finding him. Then a friend made the suggestion I imagine most of the people reading this blog would have made. Why not Google him? Within seconds she found him. Academics are a breeze on Google.

The world is now so firmly divided into people who Google everything and those who rarely think of it that it's almost become an alternative definition of intelligence. I was sitting on the tube the other night facing somebody wearing a security pass for an educational institution. It had their name and picture on it. They'd made no effort to conceal it. They got off at my station. With nothing else to do while waiting for the bus I looked on the web on my iPhone, entered just their title and first name plus the name of the institution into Google and within a couple of seconds I had their CV. I do things like that because I'm a nosy hack but it would be just as easy for somebody who wished to steal their identity. The person who would probably be most disturbed by this prospect would probably be the person who didn't make the basic effort to conceal the pass in the first place. If they were in the Googling classes they would make sure they hid it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Looking out for each other

Alice Glass of Crystal Castles made a plea from the stage for rapists to be castrated. The BBC Suffolk website said that "regular festival goers were shocked by the attack". The Daily Mail added that "police began patrols following the second attack in an attempt to curb fears among festival-goers" and, having found somebody who talked like a sub-editor, quoted her as saying "Now everyone is left reeling after this second rape". The Guardian wagged its rarely-used finger and said following these two alleged incidents that "safety must become Latitude's top priority".

It's difficult to believe that these reports were written by people who actually went to Latitude, most of whom passed a pleasant sunny weekend without being aware of any attacks or any police presence of any kind. It goes without saying that any attack is serious and, if proven, the law should deal with it. I went there (with wife, two daughters and a friend, for what it's worth) and would happily do so again.

In any place where 35,000 people gather there's likely to be some crime. The notion that the organisers of a gathering of this kind can guarantee the safety of every individual all the time is ridiculous. The organisers of an event can be expected to provide security fences and adequate lighting but they cannot legislate for what might happen if somebody stumbles off on their own in the middle of the night. One of the stage announcements I remember from the Woodstock film in 1969 was along the lines of "the man next to you is your brother so look out for each other". This seemed to me to be true back then as it is today.

My son and his girlfriend - final year students at Leeds University - were recently returning to his flat late at night when a cab pulled up and dropped off a young woman who was so drunk they had to help her open her front door. They didn't know her but they took her inside, put her to bed and decided they couldn't leave her in case she vomited. They found her mobile, got the number of her friends and rang them. These friends were still in the club that she'd somehow left. They didn't seem overly concerned about her but promised they'd come back and take care of her. It took the best part of two hours for the friends to return.

I don't think any society can ever stop random attacks taking place but I'm regularly shocked when I see how often drunk young people fail to, in the words of Chip Monk at Woodstock, "look out for each other". Alice Glass, The Guardian and anybody else who can get the ear of young people would be more usefully employed ramming home the message that the safety and well-being of your mate is your responsibility, no matter how drunk and temporarily obnoxious they may be, than waving their arms around and expecting this problem to be solved by either security men or public executioners.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Every picture tells a story

Went to a press preview of the Camille Silvy exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Silvy was a French pioneer of photography in the 19th century, working on both sides of the channel in the period before anybody had a clear idea of how you might make a living out of the new art.

There are entire folders of all the people he took pictures of in his London studio, from memorial pictures of dead infants through famous writers to would-be society figures. Included among them is this arresting picture from 1862 of James and Sarah Davies. She was a present from the King of Dahomey to the Queen of England via a sea captain. There's more of the story here.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

In Praise of Green Metropolis

I can't vouch for how much money Green Metropolis donate towards their declared aim of saving the planet but I've been using them for the last couple of years to sell on books I no longer want and using the credit to buy things I do want. This week I bought "I Saw Two Englands" by H.V. Morton, the Michael Palin of his day, for £3.50. It's got a tattered dust jacket but so would you if you'd been given by Kathleen to Mabel at Christmas 1946. The actual copy's in very good condition - and, what's more, it comes with a bookmark extolling the virtues of National Savings. I can't tell you how much pleasure I get from things like this dropping through the letterbox.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Do we have to revisit the sweary bits of Live Aid?

It's twenty-five years since Live Aid. In most quarters this will pass unremarked. The One Show on BBC-1 are doing an item about "things you didn't know (or have forgotten) about Live Aid" and they wanted me to tell the story about Bob Geldof saying "give us your fucking money" while I was interviewing him live on air. Since the point of this story is that he didn't say that (instead he said "fuck the address") I always feel that I'm letting people down.

Telling a story like this on TV is difficult enough, given the impatience of editors with any story that has to be told in a joined-up way or not at all. When the nub of that story is to contrast two sentences, both containing a word that you can't say on TV at tea time, this is near impossible. The producer in this case said he'd "have to check it with Ed Pol". You will quickly work out that Ed Pol is not an actual person but Corporation shorthand for "editorial policy". (BBC people always refer to their internal bureaucracy as if it is a given, rather like gravity.) Anyway Ed Pol said that obviously I couldn't say the word, nor could they bleep me saying the word and nor could I replace it with "effing". I had a similar experience with a Radio Four programme I did about bootlegs where we played parts of the Troggs Tapes. This was safely after the watershed but unsurprisingly we couldn't run it without bleeping the offending words. What surprised me is that Ed Pol would only allow them a specific number of bleeps.

I can understand zero tolerance of swearing. It worked for fifty years. I suppose I can also understand the arguments for total tolerance, though I think you have to take into account the fact that swearing is tiring to listen to and, if the swearing is being done by somebody you don't happen to be close to, removes a layer of skin from your soul with each obscenity. What I don't really understand is the curious halfway house we're in at the moment, where Ed Pol imposes quotas and you're allowed certain things at certain times. If the Geldof incident was an embarrassment at the time, what's the point of revisiting it 25 years later on a channel and at a time where you can say less about it than you could say at the time? It was live, which says all you need to say about it. In fact shouldn't the live blurt be the only acceptable excuse for swearing on the TV?

I don't buy the idea that TV has to change to reflect the manners of society. It's TV. Not real life. There was a time, not long ago, when you couldn't swear at all on the TV. Wasn't that also the era that produced Boys From The Black Stuff, The Singing Detective, Fawlty Towers and all the other programmes that people now look back on as the golden age?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Has Blue Peter made children out of us?

In a restaurant last night somebody pointed out Biddy Baxter, former doyenne of Blue Peter. Earlier in the day the historian Peter Hennessy had been presumably making mischief when he said on Start The Week that he believed that many of New Labour's failings could be traced back to Blue Peter. "It produced a political generation who believed they could collect the bottle tops, do AIDS next week and then solve world poverty. It was absolutely toe curling."

Certainly we have a political class who believe that once you do something that thing is done. Some of the things they do have that bright-eyed "new beginning" feeling of a Blue Peter campaign. The difference is that while all Blue Peter is trying to do is build an orphanage, they're trying to bring about changes in behaviour. Initiatives are announced, budgets assigned, progress reported and then there's a long silence. Only when the people who began the initiative have moved on does somebody emerge to admit that while they took all the action they intended to take it hasn't quite produced the results they intended. There was an item saying just that yesterday about government's campaign on childhood obesity. Seems you can't make people act in their own interests if they don't want to.

It's only when a campaign has hit the wall that people are prepared to concede that expectations might have been unrealistic. In recent years questioning the steady extension of university education has been like arguing for a better deal for witches in Salem. Now that the big story is 69 people chasing every graduate job Martin Birchall of graduate recruitment firm High Fliers is on the radio pointing out that nobody asked industry whether they needed this number of graduates. Seems obvious now, doesn't it?

Of course I don't blame the politicians. They're only trying to do what they think will play with us and we're addicted to good feelings particularly when they can be achieved without any apparent sacrifice on our part. Would we like to solve world hunger? Yes! Would we like to get those people across the road to behave better? Of course we would. Do we want all our children to go to university? You bet we do. Have we thought about the consequences of some of this? Not a lot.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

An open letter to Rupert Murdoch on the erection of the Times paywall

Dear Rupert

I know you've been waiting to hear what I think about the reality of The Times and Sunday Times being behind a paywall. Fair enough. I don't expect you take much notice of much of the hot air this has generated in the blogosphere but, hey, us press barons must stick together.

Obviously, I'd love to see your pay plan work because the alternative is cloud cuckoo land. The idea that this news-for-free shemozzle is all going to work out OK at some unspecified point in the future is as transparent a nonsense as has ever been peddled by grown adults to other grown adults. This is a rum revolution we're going through and no mistake. For a start there are no revolutionaries. There are just a load of salaried employees being paid to spend other people's money until it runs out. There's no end of freeloading end users who haven't got a clue how close that is to happening. Finally there's a bunch of academics standing on the sidelines shouting for more money to be hurled on the bonfire. It's only people like you and, to an extent so minuscule as to be invisible, me who have got any skin in this particular game. So, Rupe (may I call you Rupe?) I'd love to see it work and to that end you'll be personally relieved to learn that I've signed up, paid my footling pound, handed over my credit card details and waited to see how it feels to be a paying customer of a web site. It's only been 48 hours but already I feel something.

I feel The Guardian should have done it first. The Guardian would have been in a stronger position to charge because its core readers think everyone else is lying to them and their choice of paper is an announcement of who they are. The Guardian would have found it quite easy to say, pay for this site or the armies of the night will triumph. But they didn't. They're over there watching with interest with their fingers crossed so tightly it's cutting off their circulation.

The Times is a paper that covers the same things as The Guardian but is read primarily by people who don't want to read anything written by the people at The Guardian. On the news stand its key strength is what it doesn't have. This is fine on the news stand. It's less valuable in the invisible world of on-line. Once you've paid for admittance to The Times on-line you want to feel your money has bought you access to something less vanilla than the basic editorial proposition of the paper. You also realise that a newspaper (as in the news on paper) has to be a balanced proposition. Little bit of this, bit more of that, not too much of the other. That doesn't apply so much on-line where density is all. At the moment this site feels like a lite bite rather than a rich storehouse of treasure.

What else might it provide? I don't know but I suspect that it's more raw meat, more provocative even intemperate opinion, material that doesn't feel it's been edited to fit a half-page gap, lots more photos and a lot more edge than we're getting at the moment.

You of all people, Rupes baby, will be aware that the newspaper that's currently running away with it on-line is the Daily Mail and that while your home page right now is rotating a number of nice-to-read "top stories" including Nadal winning Wimbledon, how the market might behave tomorrow, MI5 looking for Russian sleepers and the latest goings on in the Coalition, the Mail is clearly leading on a must-read story whose headline - "Fugitive bouncer who gunned down ex-lover and her boyfriend taunts police with 999 call after shooting officer in in unprovoked attack" - seems to be longer than half the stories on your site.

Still, as you would no doubt say, it's early days and I'm sure we'll see more real change in the next few weeks as the site responds to the reality of the marketplace than we've seen in the last few years. I shall be watching with interest. If you need any more advice, you know where to find me.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The man who guarded the secret of the Beatles

Ringo's 70 next week. Somebody's bound to trot out that old John Lennon line about him being "not even the best drummer in the Beatles". This misses the point on purpose, as if the best drummer for a group was always the one with the most skills. What matters with any group musician is fit.

But drummers are a different category altogether. A musician friend recently pointed out to me that the drummer is the one who "knows where the beat is". This intrigued me. He was explaining that once the drummer had decided where the beat was, which will be a product of his ear, personality and physical disposition, then you either go along with it or replace him, either with a drummer nearer to your taste or, as is the increasingly the case, with a drum machine. There's no point thinking you can change the way he plays any more than you can change the way he walks, holds his head or drinks his tea. Ringo was also unusual in that he's a left handed person playing a right handed kit. That meant that there were some things he couldn't do very well, such as play a roll, but it also made him, in his own words, "a handy kind of player". It may be why he was one of the first drummers not to hold his left stick like a chopstick.

Ringo knew where the beat was on the greatest creative streak in popular music, which is quite a responsibility. Not being involved in the creative squabbles on the front line he had one simple job - to define the pulse of the group. He knew their secret. On the best Beatle records he's an equal contributor. Take away those flourishes towards the end of She Loves You, the jubilant ride cymbal swing of Eight Days A Week, the straightening middle-eight of No Reply and the brilliant off-kilter funk of She Said She Said, and these are only instances, and you would have records that are not only 25% less musical but probably 50% less Beatle. And because he was a glass half-full personality his percentage contained a greater than normal injection of that buoyancy and joy which is key to the group's DNA.

So Happy Birthday for next Wednesday. It's still Ringo's world. We just live in it.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Because he's worth it

I'm enjoying listening to nervous BBC presenters quizzing Sir Michael Lyons about the BBC Trust's determination to publish the names of the talent who get most money from the corporation. Jeremy Clarkson is no doubt paid a small fortune and he probably makes sure that his remuneration is organised in as tax-efficient a way as possible. So would you. Now that Ross is leaving the BBC Clarkson will be the whipping boy, the first about whom we'll be asked to decide "is he really worth that much?"

I don't know what the sum is but if any TV presenter is worth it I reckon Clarkson is worth it. Lots of people, me included, will watch anything he presents. (Full disclosure: I've no interest in cars.) He probably writes his own links, which is more than can be said about 90% of TV presenters. There is a sign, in everything he does, of a mischievous intelligence at work. He's got that energy which is the most important thing broadcasters need. He's a genuine TV star in that even when things slightly misfire you have to watch the way he slightly colours up. He's human in a way that your standard autocue reader isn't.

James May and Richard Hammond are perfectly good at what they do and very famous as a consequence of it but they're not genuine TV stars. If Clarkson went to ITV or Channel Four he'd take a lot of his audience with him. There are a lot of people who are likely to calculate their value for money from the licence fee in terms of how much Jeremy Clarkson it gets them. This is a fact, whether sophisticated opinion wishes to believe it or not.

But just because Clarkson is worth it, that doesn't mean that most TV presenters are also worth it. I suspect the BBC pay Clarkson-type money to a number of well-known faces who don't write their own links, are entirely the creatures of their producers, do very well because they're in the right slot at the right time and wouldn't take much of their audience with them if they moved. I wonder whether that's behind the implication in Sir Michael Lyons' interview this morning that the public might be surprised who's in the top band and who isn't.