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Thursday, March 31, 2011

I learned more from a three minute record

I've had this album, "The Criminal Under My Own Hat" by T-Bone Burnett for years. It's only just now, while leafing through a new biography of G.K. Chesterton, that I happened on this quote from one of his Father Brown stories:
"No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why they should export the Royal Wedding

Every year the American National Football League elects one if its fixtures to be played overseas. Two teams arrive in London and compete at Wembley Stadium with much attendant hullabaloo. The aim is to extend the reach of the brand, access new revenue streams and introduce a bit of novelty.

Why doesn't the Royal Family do the same thing with the wedding of William and Kate? As far as I can see there's not a lot of interest in the upcoming nuptials in this country, regardless of people's opinions about the monarchy. So why not take the banner event and have it take place somewhere people are really interested and are relatively pomp deprived? There's America of course, where they traditionally go big on this sort of thing. But the Windsors could look further afield. They could have people bidding for it, as if it was a Rolling Stones tour. China, Kazakhstan, Dubai, New Zealand, all sorts of governments and peoples might be interested in having our ancient rite played out on their streets and on their TVs, the frocks and rocks cooed over by their TV hosts, the scandal about the stag party chewed over by their gossip magazines, their own celebrities squabbling about who gets a decent seat at the service.

It would pay benefits, not just in terms of net receipts but also in terms of the subsequent boost to tourism. I think it bears thinking about. Times are tough. You've got to go where the market is. When they came back they could have some sort of homecoming ceremony, possibly even a renewal of vows. Then they could open the gallery at Buck House and let us gawp at the staggeringly tasteless ornaments they've been bought by their new foreign friends. Come on. It's win-win.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The thing I most often want from music nowadays

When I came home from work in my twenties it was my habit to play a record very loud. I suppose it was a reaction to the accumulated tension of the day. In those pre-Walkman days you couldn't spend a large part of your day behind a curtain of noise and so it was nice to be able to do it once you were home.

Nowadays, when we can take our personal choice of roiling chaos and clanging rhythm with us on the tube, I find that what I want from music when I get home is a sense of peace. It's almost a case of wanting the music to mark out a space away from everything else and help knit the ravelled sleeve of care. This is the new epic45 record, which I've played three times this morning. It seems to hit the spot.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Something doesn't add up in digital news

The Huffington Post is starting a British site this summer, which means there will be even more entertainment, media and current affairs in the British media market. It's customary for the newspapers and sites that are already in the British market to puff out their chests and suggest it won't affect them because what they do is different. This could be a mistake. Nobody is ever displaced by somebody coming along and doing what they already do. In fact they're never actually displaced. Instead they find their oxygen - whether that's in the shape of ad revenue, circulation revenue, viewing hours, leisure pounds or brain space – cut off by somebody coming along and doing something which is just sufficiently like what they're doing but for less money or no money at all to cause problems. In the case of the Huffington Post they have a huge advantage over the newspaper groups because the majority of their material is contributed free.

Some of the newspapers think they can survive by paying for the generation of content which they then give away for free and monetise with advertising. I don't, nor does the CEO of one of the biggest advertising agencies. He suggested this week that the newspaper groups could revive reading by giving away 100 million iPads. (Agencies are always strong on how other people should spend their money.) I still think it's not too late for the media owners to come to their senses and stop giving all their content away for free. The really galling thing about the likes of the Huffington Post stealing their lunch is the fact that those same content aggregators rely on the traditional news gatherers skills to provide the reporting on which their clouds of speculation and comment depend. What are they going to link to when they've all gone bust?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: it's really not easy being beautiful

On the radio this morning nobody seems to know what to say about Elizabeth Taylor that doesn't use the word "icon", which is the word they reach for when they want to say that somebody's significant but they're not sure why. It's even more difficult in Taylor's case because most of the films she made were remarkable largely for having her in them. It gets even more difficult when they talk about whether she was "a good actress". I'm not really sure what that means, though I suspect it's too often confused with big, sweaty displays of impersonation. I'm also not sure what being good at acting has to do with being a movie star. I suspect it's more to do with being able to move people by projecting certain qualities that they can't get enough of.

I had a look in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. One of the things I like about David Thomson is that he's strong on the things that we read into stars. He remembers her appearances in her twenties as "the vague eligible debutante that she infused with insolent wantonness, half asleep from being stared at." Half asleep from being stared at. I like that.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why National Service is a good idea which will never happen

The other day Mark Ellen and I were mulling over the benefits of bringing back National Service with the carefree air of codgers who will never be called upon to do it. As the registered owners of offspring who are in or have recently passed through the age group in question we know there's something to be said for it, and since since no government is ever going to have the nerve to bring National Service back it seems safe to rehearse some of the arguments.
  • There are 770,000 British people between 19 and 24 who are not in work, education or training. Barring the sudden revival of the country's manufacturing base or the return to sense of the professional bodies who've made a degree a basic requirement to entry to their ranks, that's not going to change. It's going to get worse.
  • The habit of work is the most important life skill you can acquire. Young people who've spent years watching daytime TV are going to find it impossible to pick up the reins of a productive life.
  • Take John Peel. He was a classic case of a young man who hadn't a clue what he was going to do with his life and National Service threw him in with a whole load of types he would not otherwise have met, sent him overseas, no doubt put him to work doing some mind-numbing tasks, taught him to rub along with other people and probably did him more good than daytime TV would have done.
  • If you talk to anyone of any distinction in their seventies and ask them how they ended up doing what they did, they will frequently say "it was National Service".
  • If we had a conscript army there is no chance of a government of any stripe getting involved in overseas adventures like Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. It would simply not be worth the political risk.
  • It's bound to result in less pallid indie bands.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Has anybody heard a joke in the last five years?

When did somebody last tell you a joke? By a joke I mean a funny story which involves the introduction of a couple of characters, some dialogue, some action, a development and a conclusion, preferably a funny one. I can't remember when I last heard one. Comedians do "bits". Funny websites take playground gags and apply them to adult subjects. There have never been more places you can go to for humour. In fact humour pops up in all sorts of places where I'm not particularly looking for it. But jokes? I never hear any.

When I look back I recall what seems like whole days spent telling and listening to jokes. What else did we do in the sixth form at school or in the pub at college? How else did men communicate with each other? The joke was the basic unit of exchange and a young man's head was teeming with comedy Irishmen, cavemen, blondes, psychiatrists and policemen. Jokes, it seemed to me, told you more about narrative than any amount of English Literature. But now they seem to have gone, which seems to me more chilling than even than the decay of handwriting.

My favourite joke. Two rhinos walking through the jungle. One in front. One behind. They walk and walk and walk. Then the one in the front stops. Consequently the one behind stops. The one in front turns his head to the one behind and says "Do you know, I can't help thinking it's Tuesday?"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Are all middle-aged men know-alls?

An old colleague of mine used to say that the reason there were so few magazines for middle-aged men was that they weren't interested in finding out new things so much as boring you senseless with things they already knew. He reckoned that in most social situations men would carefully move the conversation to something that they knew a lot about and would then seek to dominate the exchanges. I argued he was rather overstating his case but I do recognise the syndrome. Maybe blogging is an outlet for the same impulse.

I was reminded of this when I finally got round to watching The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Tired of the fact that Brydon won't listen to his lectures about Malham Cove, Coogan strides off along the limestone pavement to admire the view. As he does so he's joined by another walker who is determined to pass on his superior knowledge of the geology that formed the feature. Coogan isn't merely bored. He's also desperate to demonstrate that he knows almost as much. In the end he simply has to walk off. You can see the scene here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Listening to Richard Keys and Andy Gray on Talk Sport

I drove down to Oxford this morning. Seeking to luxuriate in Tottenham's progress to the last eight of the Champions League and not wishing to listen to Woman's Hour, I tuned to Talk Sport for the journey.

Richard Keys and Andy Gray, recently let go by Sky Sports in the wake of their unfortunate remarks, are still settling down to their somewhat reduced circumstances on TalkSport's morning shift. They asked their guest Graeme Souness how he had enjoyed being in Barcelona earlier in the week. It was quite poignant. Had they not mis-spoken as they did they would have been inside that particular red rope, not stranded on the other side watching the quality.

On the drive back I listened to Paul Hawksbee and Andy Jacobs doing their afternoon show. All the TalkSport presenters are all essentially doing the same job, chewing over last night's events until every last bit of flavour had been extracted and throwing forward to what might happen tonight. It's a pub conversation carried to insane lengths.

What was interesting is that the TV refugees had hardly anything to say. Their banter was stilted, their laughter mirthless, their lack of originality really quite startling. Once deprived of TV's ace card, which is its sense of a big event, they were exposed as the men with the least interesting opinions in the pub. Hawksbee and Jacobs, by contrast, who are presumably paid a fraction of what the morning guys are paid, had some warmth, some rapport, some willingness to try things.

The contrast made me think of the first series of Alan Partridge on the radio, which I'd been listening to again via the iPlayer. The reason Alan is such a profoundly sad character is that he desperately wants to be on the television and regards everything else as second best. Alan thinks he's just passing through radio on his way to a better world. I wonder what Keys and Gray think.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Are even turkeys made with loving care?

Watching the "making of" documentary that comes with "The Social Network" I came to the conclusion that these films are mainly done to gratify the egos of the film's makers by underlining just how seriously they take their work. From the scenes where David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin and the two lead actors sit in a conference room and weigh every word of the dialogue (most of which is going to go right over the audience's heads) through the ninety-nine takes of the opening scene in the bar to a Winklevoss twin confiding that somebody had pinned his character's notional Harvard timetable next to his desk, it was a portrait of almost demented fastidiousness. This being "The Social Network", it's all seen as worthwhile, but people must presumably be going to the same trouble on films that are going to open on Friday and then close a day later.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

What price World Book Night in the Can't Be Arsed Society?

If the various pro-book initiatives we've seen this week are anything to go by, authors have no more business pronouncing on how the public should behave and public policy should be shaped than rock stars or footballers. They sound every bit as much like naive sixth formers in an overheated debate. First Alan Bennett likens the closure of libraries to "child abuse". (He should read the most sensible contribution to this debate, from author and library campaigner Anthony Horowitz, who indicated a way forward for school libraries without avoiding the unpalatable truth that public library use has declined by a third in the last five years.) Then Philip Pullman, speaking in favour of the scheme whereby a million books are going to be given away, says "give books to people and they enjoy them and go and buy more books." (Tell that last one to the record business, who found that giving away CDs with mass market newspapers depressed the artists sales in some cases.)

Both seem classic illustrations of the shortcomings of this whole debate. The pious pronouncements at the top don't match the actual behaviour on the ground. People's disinclination to read books is not because they don't have access to them. It's because they can't be arsed. This doesn't change because you have further pandered to their indolence by rushing up and putting a book in their hands. Furthermore, the declining handful of independent book shops complain, not without reason, that the last thing we should be doing is giving books away, thereby adding even further to the perception that a book, if it costs you anything, ought to be about as much as a bottle of supermarket wine.

In the attention economy the actual book is neither here not there. Most of the people who are being given books today have got loads of unread books at home. What they lack is the will to read them. This is because they have persuaded themselves that their lives are somehow too busy to allow reading time. Oddly enough, they don't have any trouble making time for TV. A BARB survey just found that while the average Briton claims to watch TV for 20 hours a week the true figure is nearer thirty.

Tonight BBC-2 is all about World Book Night. Lots of well-known, good-hearted people will be popping up on your screen talking about how much they love reading. Wouldn't they be better off just taking a leaf out of what the BBC used to do in the 50s, which was shut down for an hour after Children's Hour to allow parents to put their children to bed? Impossibly quaint, I know, but at least it made the point that there were some things that listening and viewing simply got in the way of. They should have a Reading Hour in which they replace their normal output with a caption saying "Read A Book. Now." Obviously most people won't, much like most students and lecturers spend most of their Reading Weeks fornicating or pruning their roses, but at least it makes the point that you should.

So tonight I will not be watching the BBC's programming about World Book Night. I shall go in the other room and read a book. I urge you to join me.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Model Agency: modelling gets the superficial treatment it deserves

I do like The Model Agency on Channel 4 because it's looking at people who spend their lives looking. In most areas of life you're expected to apologise for being interested in surfaces. In the world of models it's the only thing anyone's interested in, a focus it shares with TV. Nobody can have a conversation without breaking off to congratulate somebody on their hair or ask whether they're wearing any make-up. Girls are described as "fat", "beautiful" or "too thin" on the basis of a one-inch variation in hip measurement. After a single meeting they can be instantly divided into "show girls" or "money girls". Show girls do catwalks and editorial and have to seem appealing to designers who are predominantly gay men. The ideal candidate here would be a 12 year-old boy with the face of a girl from a renaissance painting. Money girls (wouldn't that be a great name for a band?) on the other hand do catalogue and basic advertising work. They have to appeal to clients who are looking to sell something. Money girls smile. Show girls don't.

If you're in the modelling business you're dealing in new flesh of which there is a limitless supply. The ones who come in the door with their parents and their book of pictures taken by a friend are rarely the ones you want. They're pretty but they don't have that other-worldly, venusian look that real models have. Luckily they're usually not tall enough either which gives the model agent an easy get-out and avoids them having to say "you're not good looking enough". It's often the case that the chosen ones have never thought about it. I was particularly struck by the American booker who discovered one 14-year-old while out shopping in Kingston. He was first attracted by her thin ankles which he glimpsed under a table. His gaze travelled up her long legs to find a perfectly slim shape and, eventually, the face of Helen of Troy. He asked if she'd ever thought about modelling. She said no. I think I believe her.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Was today the beginning of the end for media?

I'm not surprised that journalists fall over themselves to get tickets for Apple's product launches. At the moment the company has that combination of charisma, excitement and surging forward motion that I felt on the day when Sgt Pepper came out.

It's journalist who create this. When the history of this era is written they will conclude that Apple's grip on the popular imagination had less to do with massive advertising campaigns than thousands of opinion formers all arriving at the same opinion. By that time most of those opinion formers will be out of work because the value will have passed from those skills that were formerly called "creative" to those that were formerly called "technological".

On the day that Apple unveiled its new iPad novelist Linda Grant tweeted that she had lunch with her agent who tells her that within five years "no-one, not authors, agents or publishers will be able to make money out of books". It's the same day that the papers report that Randy Newman, interviewed at the Oscars, remarked that getting into the music business today was like breaking into a bank that had already been robbed. It's also the same day that Rupert Murdoch made it clear that anyone who was worried about the future of diversity in news providers could take Sky News off his hands, operating losses and all.

He knows what Steve Jobs knows. That the value right now is in the pipe, not the stuff that flows down it. You'd have thought more journalists would realise.