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Sunday, October 31, 2010

I still like a book

I've just finished In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak. I was so impressed with it I've bought a few copies to give away as Christmas presents.

This is the copy I've been carrying around with me for the last couple of weeks, with the receipt I've been using as a book mark. It's an 800-plus page book so I felt the usual sense of achievement that I was not merely getting through it but also enjoying it. I liked feeling it in my hand and putting it on the bedside table at night.

I've also bought myself a Kindle, which clearly has a place for anyone who does a lot of reading. But if I'd read "In Europe" entirely on the Kindle I would miss not being able to look at it. If you've invested this much time in something you like to be able to see it and touch it.

I'm the same with music. Downloads are fine if all you want to do is listen. But if you really appreciate something you want to own it.



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The gas poker - a truly blood curdling piece of domestic kit

When we moved into our house twenty-three years ago it had no central heating. There was a coal-fired boiler in the kitchen that the elderly couple we were buying from kept going all the time. Of course as soon as we moved in it went out. The only device that could get it started again was a gas poker. I explained to this to the gas engineer we had working in the house yesterday. Nice bloke, in his thirties, I should think. "What's a gas poker?" he asked.

I explained it was a device such as you might use for poking the fire but if you connected it to the gas mains and applied a match to it flames would shoot out of holes in the side. Then you pushed it under the fuel on the fire until it got a glow going. That's a gas poker, I said.

He gulped and handed me a safety leaflet.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What the Walkman took from us

Sony have announced that they're stopping production of the Walkman. They presumably think that having sold 220,000,000 units they would be pushing their luck carrying on. I can clearly remember my first encounter with the miracle that was the original Walkman. It was 1979 and I'd gone to Stewart Copeland's flat in Shepherd's Bush to interview him. The Police had just come back from Japan and he produced this blue house brick of a tape player and handed the spongy earphones to me. "Put these on," he said to me with the air of a man who'd been performing the same party trick with all kinds of people since his return. I can't remember what music it was playing but I can clearly recall my breath being taken away by the realisation that all this sound was emanating from such a small device. Compared to that one giant leap the move to the iPod was just a minor adjustment. The Walkman changed things so completely that I still don't think that we realise the full extent of its impact thirty years later. With its arrival music stopped being what it had primarily been since the dawn of time, which was a social thing.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Clarence Shaw

I just received the latest edition of my school's old boys magazine. It carries the obituary of one Clarence Shaw, who died earlier this year at the age of 93.

Clarence was a miner's son. In 1936 he became Head Boy of the grammar school. He got a scholarship to Oxford. He married in 1939, the same year he enlisted as a private in the Royal Artillery. During the war he served on convoy protection duty. He was torpedoed twice. On the second occasion he survived two weeks in a lifeboat before rescue. By the end of the war he had made Captain. When he was demobbed he trained as a teacher and entered the profession. He retired in 1980 as the Headmaster of a school near Barnsley. He had six children and liked to read the classics in the original Latin and Greek.

Just saying.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Marianna Palka points the way to a post-PR world

This morning I got an email from Marianna Palka. To my shame I'd never heard of her. In 2008 The Guardian called her "the young British director who's taking the world by storm". She made and starred in a film called "Good Dick". Anyway, she's on her way to the UK from Los Angeles to do some press and she says she's an admirer of my work and wonders if I could advise her who might be interested in interviewing her. It's not unknown for the admiration to be flannel and her PR will know better than me who's interested in interviewing her.

What interests me is the direct, specific approach. Every day I go through my inbox and delete about a hundred PR emails unread. The PRs who send them probably don't care because what they're really bothered about is being able to tell the client that they've informed me and a few thousand others. Job done. Invoice in post. The only ones I read are those that have subject lines of particular interest to me or appear to be clearly aimed at me alone. By sending this kind of email Marianna Palka has acquired the most valuable currency in The Attention Economy. She's got someone to stop and think about her for half an hour. Shame (for her) it has to be me.

This is not unprecedented. I've had a few approaches recently from PRs saying that this or that artist is a big fan of the Word Podcast and would love to be on it. Frankly, I don't believe them because if the artists were that bothered they would get in touch themselves. That way we might believe them. Why, in this day and age, would you send any kind of message through an intermediary?

Anyway, if you are a hack and she sounds like your kind of story, Marianna's clearly an exceptional cove. She was born in Scotland, moved to New York to act at the age of 17, she's already written, directed and starred in her first feature film and she's not yet 30. Best of luck to her.

Inside the cosy world of our top politicians

Having seen a brief clip, I can't wait to view the rest of "Mandelson: The Real PM". This fly-on-the-wall documentary follows Cabinet Minister's grandson Baron Mandelson in the febrile run-up to the last election. How he got away with it I'll never know.

It's made by his personal friend Hannah Rothschild, the sister of financier Nathaniel, in whose company Mandelson made his controversial visit to the yacht of Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, where he also bumped into Baronet's son George Osborne. All these guys must have been bantering with each other for years now, at smart parties as well as at despatch boxes. One can only be thankful that they met Deripaska because that must have been the only time that year that they'd had dinner with anyone who'd worked on a building site.

The film promises to illustrate what a narrow gene pool our top politicians are drawn from nowadays. I don't think the makers will notice but we will. As politics becomes more and more about TV it favours people who are above all things polished. During the Labour leadership election, which was contested between candidates who had all been to Oxbridge, institutions which are world class at polish, I couldn't help but wonder if David or Ed Miliband would ever have found their way to Doncaster or South Shields if they hadn't had them lined up as safe seats. Bet they're the only people from Primrose Hill to make regular visits.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Kids today really don't know they're born - and nor will the next lot

It's nice to feel like a member of an oppressed minority now and then. Bit of indignant hurt peps you up no end. In the course of an interesting debate about university top-up fees on The Guardian site somebody pops up with what is becoming a familiar refrain - since they clearly grew up in an era of plenty and didn't have to pay to go to university, why don't the baby boomers pay for all this?

I have my Baby Boomer membership card and therefore I feel the need to respond.

I came from a direct grant grammar school which every year sent a handful of boys to Oxbridge. Although this was a selective school not everyone went on to higher education, not by any means. These were the days of 13% going on to take a degree. Some left at 15 (you could do that in those days) to work as office boys or to take an apprenticeship. And this wasn't a simple economic calculation. It depended on their inclination, prospects and temperament. I knew miner's sons who stayed on and went to university. I knew kids from well-off families who got out the second they could. I went away and came to London. I did a four year B.Ed course which finished in 1972.

While I was studying my tution and board was paid. I had £40 a term for everything else (bolstered by what I managed to save from unpleasant manual labour done during the vacations). I went to the pub where I drank mild because it was cheaper. I hardly ever went into London because I couldn't afford it. The pictures maybe once a month. Clubbing obviously wasn't invented, nor were premium lagers, clothes with logos on them and designer drugs. I didn't know what a cab was. At the end of term I would go to the end of the M1 and hitchhike home.

I'm not complaining. I had a great time. I didn't work particularly hard. I loved it all and learned a lot. When I left I walked straight into a job on the recommendation of a lecturer (one of many examples of my not realising how lucky I was) where my pay was £1,500. A year. That's with a degree and London weighting.

It goes without saying that £1,500 went a lot further then than it does now. But it couldn't buy, for instance, a holiday. I did without holidays until my late twenties. When the NME wanted to send me to Hamburg for one night (you can't imagine how thrilled I was) I didn't have a passport. We got married when I was twenty-nine. On my stag night six of us went to a pub in Islington and had five pints. Our wedding was paid for by parents. It was lavish for the era. There were fifty guests. Our honeymoon was three nights in France.

Today's twentysomethings have grown used to mobile phones, Sky subscriptions, cabs, clubbing, an occasional trip to a fancy restaurant, stag weekends, Hollywood weddings and multiple holidays. In 1979 this would have been an unimaginably luxurious life. I don't think we even knew the word lifestyle. I don't begrudge them any of it. I understand only too well about debts and employment and house buying. I don't resent what I didn't have. What I do resent, what every older generation always resents, is being told we had it easy by somebody who wasn't there.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The most beautiful sound ever made by man

People talk a lot of nonsense about singing, particularly around X Factor. Sam Cooke had one of the most beautiful voices God ever gave to man. This is my favourite example of it. It's on the end of an ancient album called "Two Sides Of Sam Cooke". They call it "Humming Track". I've seen it on various CDs as "Happy In Love". I think it was probably recorded in the same session.

What is it? I don't know exactly but it sounds like Sam singing to himself far from the microphone, tapping his foot, possibly to impress a woman. I couldn't find a Spotify link so I got the disc out and recorded it. It's quiet so you have to lean towards it. It lasts less than a minute. Here it is. Let me know if this has wasted your time.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Magazines and the iPad - on second thoughts

Every magazine publisher at the moment is faced by a new problem, on top of the other ones. Do you or do you not invest in a version of your magazine for the iPad? If you listen to the futurists you have no choice. If you're adventurous you go for one of those all bells and whistles remakes such as Wired. (If you watch this little video review you can see how reviewers fudge the awkward issues – such as how do you actually read the thing? – to focus instead on the video and navigation.)

My favourite magazine, The New Yorker, has just launched their own app which means they're inviting subscribers like me to pay another $5 a week to get a version of the magazine for a tablet. Judging by the comments, I don't think I'm the only one who thinks that's a bit much. But I can see why they've done it. They have to recoup their costs and they probably reckon Apple is planning to do to the magazine industry what it has already done to the music industry, but with less lubricant, in which case it's better to set your price high.

Problem is things like this are insanely expensive to produce, aimed at a user base which is a fraction of the magazine's universe and by the time it's proven (or not) as a medium the publishers will be thousands of pounds in the hole. The only people guaranteed to make money are the developers. The only people to make money out of the Gold Rush were the people who sold the shovels. It's an old joke but it still holds good.

If you're less adventurous you could put your magazine on a platform like Zinio, which provides a PDF-like facsimile of your pages and has an interface that allows you to "turn" the pages. But even this costs money. Above all this is less about technology than behaviour. I don't feel in my water that people will inevitably use their iPads to read complete magazines on. At the moment they're using magazines to try out their iPads with, which is not the same thing at all.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Are we running out of funny?

Last night I caught five minutes of the new Harry Enfield & Paul Whitehouse show. There was a sketch about two old duffers in a gentlemen's club (good to see comedy doing its bit to preserve long-dead social history) which involved the repetition (and I do mean repetition) of the words "is he queer?", a sketch about some semi-criminals with an attack dog which involved the repetition (and I do mean repetition) of the words "shut it" and one called Mr Bean, Psycho which was about throwing a grenade into a crowded lift and then stepping in to the blood stained compartment. (I bet somebody at the BBC was more worried than most about the threatened "Mumbai-style" attack yesterday.)

It was clever, accomplished, edgy, humorous and exactly the kind of thing we have come to expect from two of TV's most popular comic actors. Unfortunately, it wasn't funny. I know funny. Funny makes you laugh. Funny has surprise on its side. Funny is - correct me if I'm wrong - the only thing that actually matters in comedy. It's like tunes in pop music. If you've got a tune you can do anything. If you haven't got a tune there's nothing you can do.

Maybe there's not enough funny to go round any more. Makes sense in a way. You've got all those channels that are looking for funny. Funny can't be an infinite resource. You've got the movies immediately signing up anyone who so much as raises a smile on TV. Then they're writing books that promise more funny. Then there's the internet. And adverts. And Twitter. And then there may be the fact that they've told all their jokes. There was Victoria Wood the other week complaining about the fact that nobody at the BBC seemed to care about her stuff anymore. But then, as people pointed out, her last big TV spectacular wasn't actually funny.

Look, I remember Morecambe and Wise. They were funny for about 20% of the time. The rest of the time they were merely comical. Seems to me we've got too much that's comical and not enough that's funny.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Dear Zachary is a film you should see

I've had a DVD of Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father on my desk for months now. I was told I should watch it. I didn't. I'm always being told I should watch things, hear things, read things. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. You know what it's like. You have to be in the mood for something and when are you ever in the mood for a home-made film about the tragic death of a young doctor in Pennsylvania?

Yesterday afternoon, when it was pouring down and I had an hour to pass before an appointment, I put it on. After 15 minutes I realised it was having such an effect on me I was watching it standing up. I watched half of it last night and have just got up early to see the rest of it. By the end I was tearing up, although not as badly as the people being interviewed.

I thought about many things after watching it: how there's a level of intimacy that professional film makers and writers can never achieve which a film like this does; just how often in the wake of a senseless loss we hear the words "all protocols were followed"; how parents feel something for other parents that's unlike any other fellow feeling; how whatever you're doing this weekend really doesn't matter very much at all.

You should watch it.