Sunday, July 31, 2005

Sunday Snippets

Particularly nasty and irresponsible headline on today's Sunday Express. Nothing new there, then.
The story is of some Muslim women arrested on suspicion of sheltering terrorists. The headline is 'VEILED THREAT'.
No doubt the Express would argue that the phrase is specific to the women arrested. And if you believed that you'd also believe that Express owner Richard Desmond's Asian Babes is an ante-natal magazine for Asian mothers.


In yesterday's Guardian, Simon Hoggart was bemoaning the inaccuracy of long-range weather forecasts on television. But the Met Office's long-range local forecasts on the internet are even more fictional. They're often wrong even for the specific day on which you are reading them.
Oddly, I still look at my local forecast every morning. I can only think it's a bit like people who read their horoscope every day even though they know it's rarely accurate and that the whole thing is a load of old cobblers.

Maybe someone should combine meteorology and astrology and produce personalised forecasts:
"Although today will be generally fine, it will piss down for five minutes while you're returning from the newsagent. And your natural optimism, heightened by the current influence of Pluto, means you won't have taken an umbrella with you."
Maybe that's the meaning of the Crowded House lyric 'Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you'. On the other hand, the lyric may just be the meaningless gibberish I've always thought it to be.

Talking of astrology, I read in that supposedly intelligent paper The Observer last week that we Pisceans are going to be particularly bolshie and irritable until next spring because Uranus is buzzing our natal Saturn.
So if I'm a bit tetchy with you in my Comment Box, it's not because of what you've said. It's Uranus.

I've noticed that the word 'nice', the use of which in an English essay in my day would have you beaten to within an inch of your life, has become a general exclamation of approbation, as in 'Nice!' - in writing as well as in speech.
I think that, like so much linguistic detritus, it's been carried to these shores on the gulf stream. When I read Mr Biz Stone's book about blogging he used 'Nice!' liberally, sometimes when he was moved to a state of almost religious ecstasy by the way a piece of HTML could italicize a word.
Nice! is now beginning to get on my tits big time.
I suppose its popularity may be because adults using it don't look as silly as if they employ terms like 'Cool!' and 'Wicked!'

Whilst waiting for my teeth to be fixed and the resumption of normal mastication, I've been eating a lot of soft instant meals.
These include Admiral's Pie, which Messrs Young's proudly tell us is the nation's favourite snack. At least they have the honesty to call it a snack since it's decidedly short on Admiral, or rather unidentified 'diced fish fillets (15%)'.
Apparently 40,000 are eaten every day. I'm sure that should be interpreted as 20,000 consumers since you need at least two of them to produce enough energy to wash the plate up afterwards.
That said, it tastes much better than Young's more upmarket Ocean Pie, which is made with pollocks (do your own gags).
But it's probably best if you're not familiar with the song 'A Little Priest' from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.
Mrs Lovett (consumer testing her pies): Since marine doesn't appeal to you, how about rear admiral?
Todd: Too salty. I prefer general.
And Sweeney may well have been right. Admiral's Pie contains 2.3g of salt.

Quote of the week:
".........clergy have been forbidden from blessing civil partnerships. We can bless battleships, and cats and dogs at the Pets' Service: just not gay couples wanting to commit to a lifelong relationship."
- Dr Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Pillock On A Pillion

I hate motorbikes. I bloody hate them.
This outburst is provoked by the fact that a lot of the teenagers in the village have now got their first motorbikes and noisily roar past Lupin Towers when I'm trying to blog or listen to Mahler's 2nd, or do both as I am at the moment.
I can be quite blokeish about cars and once, in a moment of extreme folly, bought a BMW that I couldn't afford to run.
But there's never been any risk of me joining the Gay Chapter of the Hells Angels.

I've only ridden on a motorbike once.
It was a rather humiliating experience.
When I was 16, a fellow college student offered me a lift to a party about 15 miles away. We hadn't gone far when he pulled into a layby.
"Willie", he said, "I'm not being funny or anything but would you mind not putting your arms round me? You're meant to hold onto the pillion behind you."
"Sorrry mate", I said, reflecting that if he hadn't been so nerdish looking, with as much erotic allure as old Mrs Froggatt who taught us French, I wouldn't have had the courage to put my arms round him and would have risked falling under a truck instead.

A few miles later he pulled into another layby and again removed his helmet.
"There's no need to lean over in the opposite direction when we go round bends. This is the B69749, not the fucking Grand Prix. And I'm not doing more than 35 mph. You're making us look a right pair of twats."

I lost him at the party, which was outdoors in remote woodland. Or, more likely, he managed to lose me, fearing more embarrassment on the homeward journey.
I was forced to get a lift to the nearest town with two boys in a Ford Capri who were smoking dope and told me they'd stolen the car that morning. From there, I got a taxi but I had no money so I had to wake my parents to borrow some money to pay the taxi driver.

It was 1969.
In London, people in flowery shirts from Carnaby Street were snogging on bean bags while listening to Jimmi Hendrix. People were making love not war underneath posters of Che Guevara.
And somewhere in Middle England I was too inept to ride pillion on a motorbike, too skint to pay a taxi fare and with no opportunity of getting laid.
I was also lying awake wondering if the police would find my fingerprints on a stolen Ford Capri.
Like they say, if you can remember the sixties you were a teenager in Middle England.

Life Imitating (F)Art

When I was in the dentist's waiting room today I crossed my legs and the fabric of my trousers conspired with the plastic seat covering to make a most realistic farting noise.
Everyone looked at me.
I saw two children nudge each other delightedly.
I made a great show of looking down at the plastic seat in the hope that this would make clear the origin of the sound. But people might simply have thought I was looking accusingly at my nether regions.

This situation was a running gag in The Fall and Rise Of Reginald Perrin, when Reggie went to see his boss, CJ, in his office. I thought of saying to the waiting room "I didn't get where I am today by being embarrassed by chairs that make farting noises."
But then I realised that most of them wouldn't have been born when Reggie Perrin was on television. They would simply think I was someone with explosive flatulence who tried to blame it on innocent furniture and had delusions about their status.
So I went back to reading The Guardian.

A lady opposite glared at me over her Daily Mail. She was probably thinking 'bloody Guardian must be all the muesli and lentil burgers they eat.'

When my name was called, I gingerly uncrossed my legs and stood up extremely slowly like someone with chronic arthritis, in the hope of avoiding a reprise.
The woman next to me offered me a hand. "No, it's all right........", I said, "I'm just....." but thankfully left the words "trying to avoid another fart" unsaid.


Was Ricky Gervais' Extras last night a one hour special, or did it just feel like it because I was waiting impatiently for the Catherine Tate Show?
I don't know which was more foolish: giving Extras a second chance or failing to tape Catherine Tate for repeat viewings. I've been laughing over the nanny from Newcastle sketch and foul-mouthed Nan at the doctor's surgery all day.
When the schedule was announced some people said it was unfair on Catherine Tate to make her follow Ricky Gervais. I now think it's Ricky Gervais who has been eclipsed. Serves him right for throwing his weight around and insisting that Extras went out in the summer on BBC2 instead of on BBC1 in the autumn, which is what the BBC wanted.

Tonight, Matthew, I'm Going To Be A Local Dignitary

When I was writing about Barney the Parrot the other day I used the phrase 'local dignitaries', even though it wasn't in the original press story, simply because it's a slightly comic and intriguing phrase.
It's very much one of those newspaper terms that is little used in everyday life. If you meet someone on holiday and ask them what they do, they're unlikely to reply "I'm a local dignitary".
The OED defines it as "a person holding high rank or office". This is rather misleading because not all such people are described as 'dignitaries'. Indeed, the higher the rank, the less likely the term is to be used. It would never be used of members of the royal family, for example.
But for journalists, it's a handy collective noun for the rag, tag and bobtail of people who attend formal events, as in the phrase 'MPs and other dignitaries.'

But it's far more commonly used at local level - or as we must now say 'community level'. When I worked in local government I achieved the dizzy heights of the local tabloid calling me a 'Chief', even though I was really only one of the Indians. But to be called a 'dignitary' I'd have needed to be either Chief Executive or Leader of the Council.

Pre-eminent among local dignitaries is the Mayor. For the benefit of overseas readers, most English Mayors are elected by their fellow councillors on a 'Buggin's Turn' basis. And many of them combine a total absence of natural dignity with a deep love of the dignity and the trappings of the office. It's not unknown for close friends who have always called them 'Bert' to be instructed to call them 'Mr Mayor' at all times. I've known one or two who probably asked their wives to use this form of address during lovemaking. But all too often the mask slips. A Lady Mayor in these parts once staggered from a reception into the hotel kitchen where her friend was a washer-up, kicked off her court shoes and said "Jesus Betty, my fucking plates are killing me!"

Another local dignitary is the Lord-Lieutenant of the County, who is neither a Lord nor a Lieutenant although often an ex-military man. They have no powers but are the personal representative of the Queen in each county which gives them oodles of quasi-Royal dignity. They wear a uniform and often carry a sword and the office derives from the old post of Sheriff. I've often thought it would be fun to dress up as Robin Hood and challenge one to a sword fight, especially if you were in Nottinghamshire.

With the decline in respect and deference which so shames our nation [©Daily Mail], local dignitaries have lost most of their street credibility. A D-list celebrity carries far more clout than an A-list dignitary. If the Mayor is opening the local fete it's probably because the man who plays darts in the background in the Rover's Return in Coronation Street was unavailable.

This is very unfair on all those people who have selflessly dedicated their lives to telling their local community what's good for them and have now been rewarded with the right to wear funny costumes and a giant-size Argos necklace as a chain of office.

It's time to re-instate the local dignitary at the centre of our national culture and only television can do it.
So let's clear the schedules for 'I'm A Dignitary, Get Me out of Here!' in which local dignitaries spend two weeks living on the allotments between Balacalava Crescent and Nightingale Close and undergo a series of trials supervised by Ant and Dec, including eating stewed earthworms and picking up used hypodermic needles between their toes whilst blindfolded.

That will be followed by 'Dignitary Love Island' in which six Lord-Lieutenants will have sword fights for the chance to sleep with the Lady Mayor who has knitted the sexiest bikini from dried palm leaves, as judged by Trinny and Susannah.

On Saturday evenings Chris Tarrant will present a special 'Dignitary I Want To Be A Lord Lieutenant', featuring Phone A Minor Royal, Ask The Local Community and Just Show me The Right Answer.

The prime spot on Sunday will be given to 'It Shouldn't Happen to A Local Dignitary', featuring hilarious clips of Lord-Lieutenants falling over their swords and Lord Mayors being garrotted when their chain gets caught in the door of the Mayoral car.

What do you mean 'it's all a bit tacky'? If these dignitaries are going to stand on their dignity they'll be history. And that would be the ultimate indignity.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Adwatch (No. 97)

Most commercials are aspirational in some way, even if they're only about aspiring to have cleaner dishes or cleaner lavatory bowls.
Class, status and wealth are used, often without any attempt at subtlety, to sell products.
Yes, I'm stating the bleeding obvious here, but only for the purposes of contextualisation.

There are some products for which this approach is not an option. When your product and target market are such that depicting middle class or upwardly mobile people consuming it would simply provoke derision, you sometimes have no choice but to put social classes C2 and D29 in your commercials, or whatever the modern equivalents of those categories are. And in these cases the commercials do at least stand out from the crowd.

There used to be a commercial for a sandwich filler that showed horny-handed building workers being driven to the building site happily clutching their lunch boxes. I think the Cup-A-Soup and early Pot Noodle ads were rather similar until Pot Noodle hit on the idea of associating their product with illicit sexual pleasures. Those, appropriately for a product whose main ingredient comes out of a kettle, got them into a lot of hot water with the Moral Minority, but they were clever ads with the potential to 'broaden the client base' by implying that, just as members of the Holland Park chatterati are sometimes found kerb-crawling in the back streets of Kings Cross, so they might sometimes ditch the polenta and secretly get down and dirty with a Pot Noodle.

All of which brings me to the current intensive TV campaign for Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is not a product that you can easily associate with the rocket-eating, River Café-going classes.
The series of commercials has people singing, not particularly well, about the product rather in the style of an end of term musical at Daventry Community College, written by the pupils with some help from the well-meaning but musically-challenged drama teacher.

But it's the most recent one that intrigues me.
Imagine you were one of those adjectives-turned-nouns, a 'creative' in an advertising agency, and were asked to produce a commercial that featured a Bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken (at £9.99) as a romantic dinner for two. You might very well start storyboarding your own journey to the 16th floor and descent to the street without a parachute.
But some brave soul has grasped the nettle, or the glutinous, deep-fried chicken wing, and given us a couple singing to each other in sub-operatic style over a cardboard bucket of Colonel Sander's finest.

They are in a rather dingy room with a few Argos-inspired design touches and in the presence of two young children. I don't know why, but I draw the inference that these kids are the offspring of only one of the couple and that either the man or the woman is a single parent who is dating again and didn't have the foresight to dump the kids on a relative. Unless, of course, the aphrodisiac properties of southern fried chicken ('southern', in this case, meaning Slough) took them completely by surprise like an attack of salmonella.

The woman is wearing an ill-fitting old cardigan and is called Tiffany. We know this because the man sings it at her at the height of his monosodium glutamate-induced passion. I'm not sure whether the name has any significance but, since the man suggests that they finish the last 69 pence of the bucket upstairs, we know that he will be having Breakfast at Tiffany's.

I've forgotten the name of the man, who is never going to threaten the career of Brad Pitt, because I'm too distracted by the dreadful black and white striped shirt that he's wearing. Somebody should slap an ASBO on that shirt. If it ever mixes fibres with Tiffany's cardigan, a sartorial mutation of Frankenstein proportions could result.

The two children observe this grisly, poultry-based courtship ritual with understandable distaste, their expressions suggesting that the cardboard bucket may come in handy as a receptacle for something other than chicken bones.

In the final shot, the boy reaches out and takes one of the cartons of Malteser ice cream. It's unclear whether he intends to eat it or is trying to ensure that they don't start smearing it over each other's bodies whilst moving on to a medley of songs from West Side Story.

I suppose I've proved that the ad is memorable, to me at least. But does it work? How tragic it would be if sales of Kentucky Fried Chicken remained static whilst sales of pale pink cardigans and black and white stripey shirts went through the roof and Tiffany became the name of choice for the country's little chavettes.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Dangerous Consensus

People with no understanding of the nature and purpose of politics are always complaining about politicians constantly disagreeing and arguing. But you should be far more worried when politicians from all parties start agreeing with each other, as is now happening over new anti-terrorist legislation.
It is left to a well-known human rights lawyer, Cherie Booth, to sound a note of caution about passing laws that will undermine the very 'way of life' that the terrorists apparently wish to destroy.
That she also happens to be the wife of the Prime Minister who wants to pass these laws creates an odd situation that, so far as I know, is unprecedented in British political history.
Of course, the role of Prime Ministerial spouse is unrecognised by our constitution and she is not a 'First Lady' in the American sense. There are no formal or legal restrictions on what she can do or say.

Although I agree with her recent statement it won't make me a paid-up member of the Cherie Booth/Blair fan club. For one thing, she has publicly supported the invasion of Iraq. To me, this sits uneasily with her views on other subjects and majority legal opinion around the world declared the war to be illegal. So did the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I find it hard to believe that a woman of her political views, and a leading human rights lawyer, didn't have misgivings over Iraq. Maybe Cherie Booth was opposed to the war but Mrs Tony Blair felt that she had to publicly support her husband over one of the most controversial issues of his time in office?


Can you reconcile the following facts?

1) Politicians say that new legislation is urgently needed to counter the threat from terrorism.
2) We are currently in the middle of a serious threat from terrorism.
3) The new legislation will not be introduced into Parliament until October when MPs return from their long summer holiday.

Much the same inconsistency applies to ID Cards, also claimed to be an important anti-terrorist measure. Even if the legislation is passed and implemented, they won't be fully operational for at least ten years. The earth could have been destroyed by an asteroid before then.
Not that ID Cards are much of a deterrent to suicide bombers. The 7th July bombers made sure they were carrying means of identification so their supporters could quickly claim them as holy martyrs.

One has to ask whether such a lengthy timescale to implement measures that are supposed to be vital to counter a current threat doesn't justify the suspicion that the Government has a wish-list of authoritarian and contentious measures that have been on the shelf for years, especially in the Home Office, and that terrorist attacks provide the perfect opportunity to dust them down and ram them through Parliament on a tide of cross-party consensus.

The Guardian has been told that the current 'shoot to kill' policy that resulted in the death of the innocent Brazilian includes the instruction that, if someone is suspected of being a suicide bomber, no warning should be given before shooting them in case they detonate a bomb.
Whilst one can see the logic of that, it does hugely increase the risk of innocent people being killed by the police. The most important thing to be publicly clarified is what level of certainty police officers need to have before they open fire. From what we know so far, the level of certainty in the case of the Brazilian man was set extremely low.

The Guardian was also told by a 'senior Met insider' that "when the truth comes out it is going to be horrific."
And in this case the truth probably will come out. Firstly, because there are more witnesses than for any other similar tragedy, plus CCTV footage. And secondly, because the Brazilian man's family have engaged the services of the brilliant and dogged solicitor Gareth Pierce, a heroine of our times who has exposed and overturned so many miscarriages of justice.

Norwegian Blue?

Those of you in Britain may have already read the story of Barney the Parrot. But in these depressing days it deserves the widest circulation.

Barney belonged to a man with a dislike of authority. When his owner emigrated, Barney was given to an animal sanctuary. All was well until a party of local dignitaries came to tour the sanctuary. Barney told the Mayor to "Fuck off", then turned to a woman vicar and said "You can fuck off too." Two policemen were also told "And you can fuck off, you wankers."

Poor Barney has now been put in solitary confinement in a special cage and is forced to listen to Radio 4 all day in an attempt to clean up his language. The good news is that so far it isn't working.
A swearing parrot is not exactly an original story, but on a day when I was still having problems with my teeth and had broken my glasses, the story of Barney cheered me up no end.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Tabloid Fake Outrage Shock

Last Sunday's People had a front page story about a Coronation Street actor being in a gay porn film. Since I often write about Corrie here I fished out my reading glasses in the newsagent to see who it was. (I don't normally read papers in the newsagent because I can't see the difference between that and eating the bananas in the fruit section of the supermarket.)

Most people would have assumed it was the actor who plays the current gay character. But it was Keith Drinkel. Keith who? It turns out that he's the 60 year old school teacher who is Liz MacDonald's current boyfriend. Liz, of course, tottering around in those micro-skirts with her tits hanging out, could walk straight into a part in a low-budget British porn film about Salford housewives. But of all the Corrie cast, only Norris would be thought less likely to have been in a gay porn film than Keith Drinkel.

To make sure I'd got the name right and wasn't libelling anyone, I tracked down the People story on the internet. And it's a classic of its kind. The strapline says: "He stars with babyfaced young actors in shock hardcore gay sex film". Note that word 'babyfaced'. The article constantly tries to create a non-existent link with children and illegality, although it's forced to concede that none of the performers in the film are under-age. Indeed, it's a legal video with an R18 certificate.

"Many of the sickening scenes are too graphic to describe in a family newspaper" it says. Well yes. That's why the video has an R18 certificate like thousands of heterosexual porn videos.
Other descriptions of the cast in this video include "fresh-faced" and "seemingly innocent lads young enough to be his grandchildren", all calculated to imply that it is virtually child pornography.

Unfortunately for the People, Keith Drinkel had what one might call a non-shagging role and never got his kit off. I suspect that in both gay and straight porn grey-haired, 60 year old men are a rather small niche market. The poor chap seems a bit typecast because in Corrie he plays a teacher at Weatherfield Comprehensive while in the porn film he's a college Professor. Still, that's a kind of promotion I suppose.

Coronation Street said they were unaware he had been in a gay movie. Conversely, and amusingly, the producers of the gay movie said he had never mentioned his Coronation Street links. Would these have cost him the part? Possibly. "Sorry mate, our punters are never going to get their rocks off if images of Ken Barlow or Betty's hotpot come floating into their heads."

The other tack taken by the People is to say that children doing an internet search for Coronation Street actors could stumble upon gay pornography, as though any child using a PC without parental controls installed could never stumble upon pornography in any other way.
They could, of course, very easily stumble upon The People's own website where agony aunt Rachael is advising Greg who was distressed to find his stunner of a girlfriend has a stache of porn videos. "Why not watch a film together and see how you feel", says Rachael, " chances are you'll forget your reservations pretty quickly."
Children might also enjoy reading Rachel's Sex Tips, which are apparently not "too graphic to describe in a family newspaper", like this one:

TREAT him to a Tackle Tickler. When you are on top, lean back so your hands are on the bed behind you (this is also good for you as it puts maximum pressure on the front wall of your vagina, where your G-spot is situated.) Slip one hand under your bottom and fondle his testicles while riding him.

As it happens, DIY tackle tickling was Keith Drinkel's only sexual activity in the gay movie. But fully-clothed at the time. "The camera then pulls away and the actor is clearly seen sliding his hand into his trousers and on to his groin" says The People disgustedly. Don't you love that adverb 'clearly'? They obviously should have pixellated the hand going into his trousers. And notice how Agony Aunt Rachael can talk about 'testicles' but in 'Corrie Keith's Sleazy Secret' the less specific 'groin' is used.

If there's one thing that gay and straight porn videos have in common it's that the overwhelming majority of them feature performers who are youthful rather than old. The same is true of the topless female models who appear in tabloid newspapers. So when The People describes this gay video as 'sickening' and 'sordid' it can only be because it depicts gay sex rather than straight sex.

You can legislate for an equal age of consent and gay partnerships but young gay people are still subject to this sickening, hypocritical garbage that appears in the tabloid press.And whilst Agony Aunt Rachael considerately publishes several 60p a minute Helplines for Masturbation, Super Sex Positions, Penis Size Worries and Female Orgasm, there's no helpline for young people with worries about their sexuality.


I'd be happy to see Britain do the same as some other European countries and ban the use of children in advertising. Most commercials that use, or exploit, children are pretty nauseating.
So here's an odd thing. I'd expect to be averting my eyes from a commercial that had children playing adults in a role-reversal scenario. Yet I always find myself watching the Vauxhall commercials that do just that. To say I enjoy them would be over-stating it. But, rather than throwing bread rolls at the television, I think something along the lines of 'great concept, perfectly executed', and I fell to wondering why.

The first reason is that the children perform so well and don't ham it up. Well, not much.
The second reason is that they're not dressed as mini-adults with false moustaches and briefcases.
And the third reason is that the children - how shall I put this - are not very telegenic. To put it another way, you'd wait a very long time before anybody said they were 'cute'. Oh, to hell with it, they're really quite ugly little bastards.
If they or their parents do an internet search for the Vauxhall ads, I'm really terribly sorry. But surely you must have got an inkling when you saw all those cute little boys and their mothers coming out of the auditions in tears? Or when the casting director said "So he's 11 years old and he weighs 10 stone? Excellent!"

In the latest in the series, the new neighbour who is doing well enough to afford a new Vauxhall is played by an Asian boy. But even here they've managed to find quite a plain-looking Asian boy with spectacles.
"Somebody's doing all right", say the white boys. In real life they'd be quite likely to say "I bet he got that on the social security". But let's not cavil. At least they're showing upwardly mobile ethnic minorities.

On the other hand, whilst the skin colour of the neighbour isn't an issue, the message seems to be that you judge the worth of your new neighbour by the number of features on his people carrier.
That in turn raises the question of whether advertising reflects the world we live in or helps to shape it. Or possibly does both. And whatever the nature of the process, should we be involving young children in promulgating the dubious values of the advertising industry and consumerism?
But I didn't intend to get that analytical.
Only to say that these particular ads are nowhere near as irritating as they should be. Well, not to me but they may be to you.

Monday, July 25, 2005


Looking back at a phrase I used in the piece on Nigella, has anyone ever actually shot fish in a barrel?

Surely it's as unlikely as British police pumping seven bullets into the head of an innocent man on a crowded tube train?

Right, I'll shut up now.
Double Coronation Street tonight and what used to be called a 'television dinner'.
What bliss!

Oh John, You're Such A Wag!

Isn't 'chortle' a quintessentially John Major word?
He was interviewed on the Today programme this morning and told an anecdote about Ted Heath. But, being John Major, he omitted to tell us what Heath had actually said, only that it was rather rude. "Then Ted replenished the glasses with Scotch and chortled" said Major.
Gosh, how the nation must have roared over the breakfast table at this reminiscence from which the punch line had been removed.

One of the mysteries of the age is how this boy from Brixton managed to transform himself into a genial old buffer who speaks in a language that, if it was ever used outside the pages of fiction, can be carbon-dated to around 1928.
It reminds me of that Nazi spy who had learned about Britain from the pages of PG Wodehouse and parachuted into Britain wearing spats.

I knew someone who had met one of John Major's first employers, hiring him soon after Major had left school. This man described the young Major, rather unkindly, as a 'little guttersnipe' who spoke with a strong Cockney accent.
The Pygmalion-type transformation of Major is more intriguing than that of other Tory leaders like Thatcher because Major appears to have been tutored by someone who was secretly taking the piss and teaching him a style of speech that was at least 50 years out of date.

Of course, as with so much about Major, the curious linguistic style was probably more image than reality. We now know that this decent, respectable cove was clandestinely shagging Edwina Currie. We also know from anecdotal evidence that, when Major read the papers, the air was thick with 'Fucking bastards!', not 'I say, some of these chaps are being perfectly beastly about me!'

My title, by the way, is a paraphrase of what Major said to Kelvin Mackenzie, Editor of The Sun, after the latter said 'Tomorrow I'm going to pour a bucket of shit over you and your Government'. Kelvin, of course, wasn't being a wag, just the shit that he's always been.

(I think I may have covered this topic previously. If so, as with an elderly relative, just murmur politely and get on with your crosswords. Anyway, there are lots of new readers who won't notice that it's what broadcasters call a 'revised repeat').

Handbags And Gladrags (with a pinch of coriander)

When I was unwell with a cold I caught an early episode of Nigella, the new daytime show on ITV1 featuring Nigella Lawson. It wasn't actually by accident. A Guardian columnist had said it was the worst programme she had ever seen. Well, you'd just have to watch something like that, wouldn't you?

Since then, every TV critic has savaged it, although it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Or kicking a corpse. It's currently getting less than a quarter of the viewers for Neighbours on BBC1 in the same slot, which must mean they're having to almost give away all those advertising slots for pregnancy testing kits and sanitary towels that punctuate the programme and make the stray male viewer feel as though he's accidentally wandered into the women's changing room at the swimming pool.
But I'm determined to have my own two penn'orth of vitriol and sarcasm.

The horror begins with the opening titles. The first time I saw them I literally shuddered. These show Nigella looking surprised and delighted by a series of graphics of lipstick, handbags and coffee cups that float past her head. This is odd, because if you watch the programme it seems her entire life revolves around such trivia. The titles end with her writing 'Nigella' on a blackboard and looking triumphantly into the camera, as though to say 'Not only can I smile and pout. I can also write my own name'. This is all accompanied by a very retro signature tune with lots of pizzicato.

The first one I saw began with Nigella saying "we'll be talking soulmates and handbags!" Well, I suppose there's nothing like laying your trivia on the table at the outset so that anyone who's not up for some girlie chat can fuck off and put some shelves up in the kitchen.

This 'lively magazine show' (Radio Times) has a celebrity guest, a daily recipe, a discussion and a one-to-one interview called 'Diva to Diva'. Is Nigella a diva? Only in the sense that every female celebrity is now called a 'diva', just as virtually everyone who appears on Parkinson is introduced as a 'national treasure'.

In those early shows, Nigella sat surrounded by shoes on display stands, as though the programme were being broadcast from a branch of Dolcis. Either that, or you had tuned in to a programme for shoe fetishists on a late night cable channel.

The programme begins with Nigella cooking something whilst interviewing her star guest. This would defeat even someone who was both an accomplished chat show host and a top chef. Nigella is neither. It means that she constantly interrupts her guests' replies with 'I'm now adding some chopped coriander.'
Like most 'TV chefs' from Fanny Cradock onwards, Nigella is not a very good cook. I'm particularly apalled by the way she never mixes ingredients properly, whether she's making a lamb burger or a cake.
Last week she made a chocolate cake and sloshed a huge quantity of vanilla essence into it straight from the bottle. Two teaspoons would have been ample. This cake was made with a liberal quantity of cola. We weren't of course told which brand of cola, Coke, Pepsi or Peter Kay's budget price 'Rola Cola'. As if that weren't sickening enough, she then made an icing containing........yes, a lot more cola.
The vanilla, by the way, was the subject of the challenging phone-in quiz. Did it come from insects, plants or sea shells? Sorry, that should have been 'or (c) shells.'

Philosophising about food, Nigella said "you don't know if you like it until you taste it - it's a bit like people". The mostly female studio audience fell on this tenuous double meaning like people ravenous for entertainment and laughed uproariously. "I didn't mean it quite like that", said Nigella, possibly wondering who had selected all these dreadfully common people who would never get their feet under the table at one of her dinner parties.

Nigella's ineptitude at interviewing people or chairing a discussion reminds me of Steve Coogan's fictional Alan Partridge. He was a regional sports correspondent who got promoted beyond his abilities and given a chat show. Something similar has happened to Nigella but whilst Alan Partridge combined epic self-delusion with deep and thinly-veiled insecurity, Nigella just looks horribly uncomfortable.

But surely, you might say, Nigella is an intelligent woman, the thinking man's posh totty. We tend to assume so because she's the daughter of a former Chancellor, sister of a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph. But you wouldn't think so from the discussions on her programme, which resemble a coffee morning for Stepford Wives. As others have pointed out, it's like being whisked back to the 1950s, except that then the only thing on TV at 1.30pm was the test card, although that was much more riveting viewing.
Is this the kind of nonsense that is spouted at Nigella and new hubby Charles Saatchi's dinner parties? Or is she dumbing down for the benefit of the unemployed and geriatric who watch daytime television?
Unless you had a perverse fascination with truly bad television, you would only watch this if you were sitting in the lounge of an old people's home and Matron had confiscated the remote control.

The first line of the song that I used as my title is "Have you ever seen a blind man cross the road, trying to make the other side?" Well, if you have you've seen a metaphor for Nigella trying to host a chat show.
But if you're throwing a 'sickie', make sure you watch it. Admittedly, you might actually be sick as a consequence. But it will save you waiting for the next '100 Worst TV Shows Ever' programme.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Stands That Deliver

After so much heavy stuff, it's time for another gardening Willie Tip. Which is also an excuse for some more pictures.
Patios can be a bit boring if you just have lots of containers at ground level. The answer is to buy some tiered plant stands.
The one pictured has troughs of trailing lobelia cascading down the centre with geraniums at the side. And there are a few nasturtiums poking through from the back of the stand.

The bad news is that these stands are self-assembly with several hundred tiny screws and washers. It took me about two days to assemble the first one, partly because I originally assembled it back to front. 'Rome wasn't built in a day', I said to myself. But a tiny voice in my head kept saying 'but this is only a frigging plant stand.'
Actually it's not a 'plant stand'. It's called an étagère so you can impress, and possibly baffle, your friends.
'Do you like my étagères?' I asked someone.
'They're beautiful. Did you grow them from seed?'

From a previously unseen episode of Keeping Up Appearances:
Richard: I do like your new plant stands, Hyacinth.
Hyacinth: Not plant stands, Richard!
I will not have my elegant, rust-resistant, classic French-style étagères referred to as plant stands.

Another way to divide up a patio and get away from straight lines is illustrated by the use of sumac trees in containers (referred to in an earlier piece) creating a shady screen around a table and chairs.


Kathryn Flett in today's Observer writes the reverse of what I said a few days ago and gives a rave review to Extras and is very rude about the Catherine Tate Show.
If this woman can so ignorantly contradict the perceptive judgements expressed by myself and my readers then she is clearly not fit to be a television critic and should be dismissed immediately.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Oops, Sorry, We Thought You Were A Terrorist

Sadly, what I wrote yesterday has proved all too prophetic.
It has just been announced that the man shot dead by police yesterday had no connection with the London bombings.
One reason I feared this might be the outcome was that at yesterday's press conference the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, said that any loss of life was deeply regretted. I wasn't sure he'd have stressed this so strongly if he had known that the dead man was one of the bombers. I suspected that, even at that early stage, he had an inkling that a terrible mistake had been made.

The reasons for shooting the man that the police have given are:
1. He emerged from properties that were under surveillance.
2. His behaviour and clothing were suspicious.
Part of the suspicious behaviour was that he didn't stop when asked to. But there must be thousands of petty criminals in London who would leg it if anyone pursued them. And not necessarily just criminals. Many young people might run for it if they thought they were being chased by a gang.

An ex-policeman just interviewed on the BBC said the shooting had all the hallmarks of military special forces. He couldn't believe that the police would not shout a warning and empty a firearm into someone who they already had pinned to the ground.
There is, of course, a history of secretly using the military in civilian roles, most notably in the miners' strike.

The implications of this tragedy are very serious. If suspicious clothing and behaviour (and, let's be honest, skin colour) are to be sufficient reason for police executions, then Londoners have more to fear than suicide bombers.
There will be many young Asians now who will think twice about wearing padded jackets or carrying a back-pack.

The other predictable consequence is that those of us who express concern will be accused of police-bashing and even as supporters of terrorism.
The police have an incredibly difficult task and have to make split-second decisions of a kind that are the stuff of nightmares. But they're not helped by secret and contentious advice about the circumstances in which they can shoot people.
What is needed now is openness about the policies and guidance and public debate about them. Plus an admission that special forces are being deployed, if that is the case. That's the least we can ask for in an open, free, democratic society. Or is that being laughably naive?

Friday, July 22, 2005

London Bombings

It's rather early to speculate on the most recent London bombings, although that doesn't stop the mainstream media doing so. But there are bound to be some questions about the shooting of a suspect at a tube station this morning.
If eyewitnesses are correct, the man was on the ground and not holding a weapon when police fired several shots into him. My concern is not from sympathy for suicide bombers, if that's what he was (let's hope to God that he was), but because it would surely have been of much greater value to the police to capture him alive.
As I write, the police have said that the dead man was not one of the four suspects they were hunting for the bombings. This is rather worrying.
Remember the innocent man yesterday who we saw lying on the pavement in Whitehall, surrounded by armed police? And remember the case of Stephen Waldorf many years ago who was shot by police while innocently driving through London in a case of mistaken identity? Or, more recently, the Scotsman carrying a table leg shot dead because police thought he was an Irishman carrying a gun?
It has also just emerged that the driver of the tube train on which the man was shot dead had left his cab and run into the tunnel for safety. The police decided he was a suspect, chased him and put a gun to his head.

One can understand the police being jittery in the present situation. But we need to remember the IRA terrorism of the seventies and eighties when innocent people rotted in jail for twenty or more years. That would be less likely today, now that we have the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and other safeguards. But we know from the many miscarriages of justice over the years how easy it is for a police force under pressure to pick up the wrong people. Today, with hundreds of armed police swarming around London there's a real possibility that an innocent person will be shot. It may have already happened. Let's hope not. And if it does happen, there will be those who will shrug and say it's a price worth paying. So long as it's not them or one of their family, presumably.

At least with this week's attacks there has been less self-congratulation about the stoicism of the British and Londoners. The media reported the hysteria and panic when people thought there was a bomb on their train and we were shown the piles of shoes and possessions that fleeing passengers left behind. This is a good thing. In some situations panic is a normal, natural and potentially life-saving response. If you think you are close to a bomb, running like hell is the only sensible response. Whether shouting 'women and children first' is sexist and ageist I'll leave others to judge.

The 'fight or flight' response is hard-wired within us for sound evolutionary reasons. And since you can't fight with a rucksack full of high explosive, flight is the only option.
The physiological changes that are triggered by the 'fight or flight' response are quite remarkable. Chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the bloodstream. The respiratory rate increases. Blood is re-directed from the digestive tract to the muscles and limbs. The immune system goes to Red Alert. The pain threshold is raised. The pupils dilate. Peripheral vision improves dramatically so you can almost see behind your back.
Given this complex, sophisticated chemical and physiological response that has evolved for our own safety, isn't it a bit silly to say 'come on, chaps, we're British. Stiff upper lip and all that, don't you know?'

Hugh Lloyd: Are you a doctor?
Tony Hancock: No.....I never bothered.
- from The Blood Donor

Tate: 3 Gervais: 1

The most surprising thing about Extras, the new Ricky Gervais comedy, is that nobody has taken this as a subject before, given that writers and producers spend so much time amongst those people who spend their lives doing non-speaking parts. Maybe it wasn't done before because it was felt that it didn't have enough comic potential. That was probably an accurate judgement.

It was probably giving a hostage to fortune to have Ben Stiller say the line "Was that supposed to be funny?". I'm sure some newspaper critic today will have seized on that as a verdict on the programme. It's terribly easy to criticise a follow-up to a massive success but I can only be honest and say that it hardly made me laugh at all.
Using Hollywood stars as guests is wasted on me. I'd never seen Ben Stiller before and knew nothing about him so that may have reduced my enjoyment of the programme.
But I was also uneasy about the subject matter. Maybe I'm becoming over-sensitive but I thought that using the brutal murder of even a fictitious Bosnian woman as a peg for jokes was rather unpleasant.
Then there was the sequence about the man who had one leg shorter than the other. Doing a series of gags about his surgical shoe ("Can you get them in different styles?" "Do you have to buy a pair and throw one away?") seemed rather puerile to me. But, as we've seen before, Gervais loves jokes about disability. Personally, I'd rather leave such jokes to people with disabilities themselves. I knew a young chap in a wheelchair who, if he thought he was being patronised, would shout "I'm a cripple not a fucking cabbage!" That was a great line although I don't think he intended it to be funny.

It feels like sacrilege to say it but there's a certain similarity between Gervais's comic persona and Tony Hancock's comic persona. Like Hancock, Gervais always plays the same stupid, self-deluded, self-important character in every situation. The difference is that, despite his faults, the audience loved the Hancock character. There was a universality about him and often great pathos. And sometimes, like Victor Meldrew, Hancock was right in his ragings against a crazy world. None of this is true of Gervais who is just a prat, full stop. He's brilliant at making us cringe but that's a very joyless type of comedy that soon wears thin.

I laughed far more at the Catherine Tate Show, which followed Extras. This is a far more traditional genre of comedy, a series of sketches with a gallery of characters. What lifts it above most others is Tate's acting ability and some very good scripts.

I particularly like the foul-mouthed old grandmother. People who have only ever moved in polite middle-class circles may not realise that there are very elderly working class ladies to whom the 'F' word is no stronger than 'Good gracious'. I've certainly met quite a few.

So far as I know the Tate character has only ever been seen in her living room. But there's huge comic potential when such people attend family functions where the rest of the family have managed to climb the greasy pole of the class system and are wide open to embarrassment.

I once attended a 'top hat and tails' wedding to which an elderly uncle had been invited. He was a chronic alcoholic and looked as though he slept in the local park. Halfway through the wedding breakfast he staggered to his feet, undid his flies and was about to piss on the carpet. Two of the family sprinted from the top table, popped his penis back inside his trousers and carried him from the room. The lady next to me turned to me and said "This is gorgeous smoked salmon", as though nothing had happened.
It was the only wedding I've ever enjoyed.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Something To Cheer About

As I predicted here, the High Court has ruled that the Government's blanket curfews on people under 16 are illegal. These gave the police the power to pick up teenagers and take them to their home if they were on the streets after 9pm even if they had done nothing wrong.
Imagine the outcry if the Government made it illegal to carry a mobile phone in your car because a minority of motorists use their phones while driving.

Even if the concept of Human Rights had never been dreamed of, this law breached every principle of natural justice and the entrenched legal principle of the presumption of innocence.
This isn't quite the end of the story because the Government are going to waste vast amounts of public money by appealing against the decision. But I don't see how any higher court can overturn the ruling.

Instead, we should be hailing the anonymous boy who brought the case (with the support of Liberty) as a national hero. He is proof that there are many young people with principles, guts and determination and it's time we started respecting them for it.

On the same topic, I hear Ministers and others saying we have to find ways of stopping young people hanging around.
What is this nonsense? Hanging around with friends (or 'hanging out' as it's now called) is something young people have always done. If they're not doing anything illegal or anti-social, what the hell is the problem?

In my village there are seats outside the shops. In the mornings, elderly people hang around there chatting. In the afternoon, it's often young mothers with small children. In the evenings, it's usually teenagers. None of these groups, including the last, cause any trouble.

It's true that the teenage boys do a lot of spitting. Some of them sit with their heads between their legs slowly expectorating a long dribble of spit until there is a pool of spittle on the ground. I'm less concerned by the unpleasantness of this than puzzled as to why they do it. Are there any psychologists out there with an explanation? I'm sure that my generation never did it. Is there any connection with the canine trait of marking out territory? I have over-active saliva glands myself but this never causes me to spit in the street.
But even this minor unpleasantness needs to be kept in perspective. A woman in one of Alan Bennett's plays says 'Last week I saw a man pissing in Jermyn Street. And I thought is this the end of civilisation.......or is it just a man pissing in Jermyn Street?'

What vandalism and anti-social behaviour we get in this village doesn't arise from teenagers hanging around and chatting with their friends. It mostly occurs between 11pm and midnight on a Friday and Saturday night when they emerge from the pubs. Yet the Government has made it easier to get planning permission to open more pubs and is extending opening hours. One of their justifications for this is that the innocent, law-abiding drinkers should not be penalised because of the activities of a few. Er....isn't that where we came in with the argument against blanket curfews?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Probe That Package

Package Holiday Undercover has returned to ITV1 in a new live format with a set very similar to that of Crimewatch and a telephone number permanently on the screen. The presenter told us that if they received enough calls about a particular hotel or destination they would put a reporter on a plane the very next morning to investigate.
It occurred to me that Crimewatch, which hasn't changed much in 30 years, could do something similar and take a more proactive approach to crime:

Nick Ross: we need just five more calls about 15 year old Wayne Wiggins in Luton and police officers will visit his home and start the process of serving an Anti Social Behaviour Order.
[presses finger to earpiece] I'm being told that we've just had a call from a Mrs Annabel Goodyear who saw Wayne stick a lump of chewing gum on the back of a computer monitor in the public library. So exciting developments there in Luton. We'll be back with an update after the news. But do remember that this kind of behaviour is extremely common in teenagers. So don't have nightmares. Do sleep well.

The package holiday programme, which must surely be sponsored by the English Tourist Board, was a smorgasbord of schadenfreude for those of us who never leave this sceptred isle.
There was a hotel in Kenya infested with monkeys who stole sweets from residents' bedrooms and then brazenly sat on the balconies eating them. They also invaded the dining room and took food from the plates. We saw a man leap from the table and throw his chair at one of them. This is really no way to behave towards your closest relatives. Then again, it's behaviour that's not entirely unknown at weddings and Christmas family dinners.

Next we were told of the large increase in shark attacks in South Africa and a man cheerfully told us how his leg had been ripped open. I'd like to be sympathetic but I can't help feeling that if you choose to swim with the sharks you deserve all you get.

Then we learned that an entire generation of British children are in danger of drowning in overseas hotel and villa swimming pools. Surprisingly, if you rent a private villa it doesn't come with a trained lifeguard sitting by the pool 24 hours a day. An expert was drafted in to tell us that it's important for parents to keep a close eye on young children who can't swim. Perhaps I'd have been an obsessive parent because I wouldn't let a toddler play anywhere near a deep swimming pool.

Although the reconstruction of shark attacks was preceded by a warning to viewers, no such warning was given before footage of Disneyland in France so I went and checked my email while that report was on. The programme had cruelly sent two families from Croydon on a weekend in Disneyland as though living in Croydon weren't misfortune enough for one lifetime.
I noted that a two day package holiday to Disneyland cost as much as I was earning annually in the early seventies, although I would gladly have given up my salary and sold my body on the streets of Soho rather than be sent to Disneyland.

Finally, a couple from Scotland had decided it would be a spiffing idea to get married on the island of Grenada. They had reckoned without Hurricane Ivan which swept across the island during their stay. If the earth didn't move for them, the hotel roof certainly did, collapsing in a shower of concrete.
Bizarrely, Virgin Holidays apologised for the fact that the hurricane had changed course unexpectedly and hit Grenada and refunded their accommodation costs. It seems an expensive tactic for holiday companies to take responsibility for the weather.
I think the Scottish couple should share the blame because you should never go anywhere that hasn't had a Ford named after it. Perhaps they'd confused Grenada with Granada which is as safe as houses. And Capri is absolutely delightful. Personally, I've always fancied Probe in the Balearics but I'm probably getting a bit past it now.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Crap, 'Communities', And Yet More Crap

Do the Government believe all the nonsense they've been spouting since the London bombings or is it all political spin and a desire to be seen to be doing something?

The argument that our participation in the Iraq war didn't increase our vulnerability to terrorism at home is really too silly to merit any discussion. A poll today showed that most people don't believe it.
And Ministers are using the tactic of refuting a claim that nobody is making. Nobody is saying that we would have been safe from terrorism if we hadn't invaded Iraq or that terrorism didn't pre-date the Iraq war. But it's as plain as the balls on an Airedale that invading Iraq increased the risk. Indeed, our own intelligence services warned of this before the war. So they do get some things right. And Bin Laden himself apparently said that if his quarrel was with Western values then he would bomb the Scandinavian countries. But it isn't and he hasn't.


Then there's a press report that the Government is considering citizenship ceremonies for everybody when they reach eighteen, so they can affirm their allegiance to the nation.
Oh yes, that will solve everything.
Is a fundamentalist teenager going to say 'Sorry, I can't go through with this ceremony. The whole thing would be a mockery since my ambition is to be a suicide bomber and kill as many of you bastards as I can'?
And what about the millions of us who went through a First Communion and a Confirmation ceremony in the Catholic Church and now hate everything it stands for?
The irony is that it's a British characteristic to regard having the national flag and pictures of the Head of State in schools and public buildings as rather cheesy in the case of America and rather sinister in the case of authoritarian regimes. So the Government's idea is itself a contradiction of an essential element of 'Britishness'.


There's also now the great chorus of politicians and commentators calling on the 'Muslim community' to root out the minority of extremists in their midst.
But what about the extremists within the indigenous, white, non-Muslim 'community'?
Let's not forget that the BNP are sitting in many Council chambers in this country.
Or that there was a wave of attacks on Mosques in the past two weeks.
Or that a Muslim man in Nottingham was murdered.
Or that the right-wing, extremist Brixton and Soho nail bomber would have loved to have killed as many people as the recent London bombers so long as most of them were blacks or queers.

I'm not suggesting that the extreme right represent as great a threat to life as fundamentalist suicide bombers. But look at the millions of votes stacked up by the BNP in local and European elections in this country. Isn't that almost more worrying than a small group of terrorists whose intentions are shared by very few?


I commend an article by Peter Preston in yesterday's Guardian which exposed the absurdity of the vogue term 'community'.
Ask yourself which 'communities' you could be considered a member of and then consider whether in any instance the term has any fucking meaning whatsoever.

I suppose it might be said that I'm a member of the 'blogging community'. Does this mean anything more than that I'm one of ten million (or is it now 20 million?) people who write a blog?
Not to me it doesn't. Blogging is one of the most individualistic activities you can undertake. What do we have in common other than posting our witterings on the internet every day? As it happens, I also floss my teeth every day. Does that make me a member of the 'flossing community'?

And don't start me on the absurdity of the 'gay community'. You don't hear much about the 'heterosexual community' although I'm sure that by now the term has been used. I believe that politicians already talk about the 'non-ethnic community' and the 'indigenous community'.
There are no 'religions' any more. Only bloody 'faith communities'.

You can only escape the tentacles of these myriad, multiplying 'communities' if you are on the remotest, darkest shores of society. So terrorists belong to a 'network' and paedophiles belong to a 'ring'. Traditionally, criminals belonged to a 'criminal fraternity' although by now they're probably part of a 'non-law-abiding community'.

Me, I'm an individual and refuse to be forcibly co-opted into any fictitious 'community'. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I'm not sure I'd want to belong to any community that would have me as a member.


The other worrying response to the London attacks is the proposed new anti-terrorist legislation. Governments always contradict themselves. They say that there's no way that you can stop determined terrorists but they then proceed to introduce a raft of idiotic measures that destroy the very freedoms we are supposed to be defending.
New legislation on supporting acts of terrorism will need to be extremely carefully drafted if it is not to restrict legitimate expressions of opinion. When I write here that there is no moral distinction between blowing up innocent civilians in London and our Government bombing innocent civilians in Iraq, people could choose to interpret that as support for terrorism.
It clearly is not because I condemn both. But people like myself may need to choose our words very carefully and avoid any possible ambiguity. If you have a reasonably good grasp of English that shouldn't be too great a problem. But if someone expresses themselves clumsily they could find themselves an ex-member of the 'blogging community' and a member of the 'Belmarsh community' before you could say 'detention without trial'.

Clipheads and Corrie

I was going to watch the Britain's Finest Actresses programme last night but then decided I couldn't face another two hours of clips and talking heads.
Instead I watched Murder Investigation Team. But the sound levels seem very uneven in that programme, unless I'm going deaf, so after wasting 90 minutes of my life I still wasn't entirely clear who the murderer was.
As in so many cop shows, suspects being interrogated are allowed to smoke. Sometimes the cops even supply them with cigarettes. Does this happen in real life where all workplaces are no smoking zones? If it does, is it because psychologists have said that suspects are more likely to sing like a canary if they're allowed to smoke? Surely the opposite might be true? Nicotine deprivation might produce a quick confession that would either see you bailed or banged up on remand and, as I mentioned recently, smoking will always be allowed in prisons. These are the kind of trivial questions that keep me awake at night.

As for the '100 Greatest....' or '100 Worst.....' type of programmes, surely it can't be long before they've exhausted every possible subject. The obvious attraction of this format is that it delivers a respectable number of viewers at the lowest possible cost. But the superficiality of these programmes is becoming tiresome. So are the regular crew of 'clipheads' whose role is to mouth a few platitudes between the clips.
Some people now seem to become clipheads without ever doing anything else first. There's a young chap with long hair and a strong West Country accent who pops up on some of these programmes but who I've never seen anywhere else.
And then there's usually Mark Kermode, glibness made flesh. You wind him up and he spouts away without hesitation, deviation or repetition on any conceivable subject. (I wonder if he's ever considered becoming a blogger?).

Many of these programmes specialise in explaining the bleeding obvious. A cliphead pops up and says "The thing about Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army is that he's very pompous and self-important." Cue short clip of Mainwaring looking pompous and self-important. Well, bugger me in Bognor. In 30 years of watching Dad's Army I'd never noticed that characteristic of Mainwaring. Had you?

The Guardian's TV reviewer today, Rupert Smith, says that if you want Britain's finest actresses you should look no further than Coronation Street where ".....we were treated to a masterclass in screen acting, from pathos to farce."
Hear, hear to that.
But then it becomes clear that he doesn't watch the programme regularly. Talking of Shelley's facial scars he writes "For once, the swelling was not the result of Charlie's fists, but rather an ill-advised trip to the cosmetic surgeon."
Charlie has never used his fists on Shelley. The whole point of this storyline is that he has reduced her to a gibbering wreck through emotional and verbal cruelty without any physical violence.
I know this is becoming an obsession of mine, but how many times do the Guardian's TV critics have to demonstrate so blatantly that they don't actually watch the programmes they're writing about before Alan Rusbridger asks them to clear their desks and kicks their lazy arses down Farringdon Road?
The errors are now so frequent that I suggest they leave all soap reviews to the great Nancy Banks-Smith. Some of her finest writing has been about Coronation Street and I don't recall her ever getting her facts wrong. But then, being one of the old school she probably has this quaint idea that if you're going to write about a programme it's a good idea to watch it.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Farewell, Grocer

I don't think there was ever much personal animus against Ted Heath by those of us who disagreed with him politically. But my memory may be clouded by time. I have to remind myself that although it seems recent to me, it's actually like someone in 1905 reminiscing about Disraeli. It may seem as though we didn't feel very strongly about him because his successor, Margaret Thatcher, provoked such intense hatred.

To a great extent, Heath was a figure of fun. He had the misfortune to be Prime Minister when the impressionist Mike Yarwood was at his peak and just about everyone in the country would do that strange shoulder-heaving laugh. The irony is that, although he was the first meritocratic Tory leader and followed the aristocratic Douglas-Home, he was as remote from most of the electorate as any Etonian toff. This was because of his bachelor status, his love of music and sailing, and the strangulated posh accent grafted on to his working class larynx.
I've mentioned here before that there were many jokes at the time about his presumed sexuality, but mostly only on the street and not in the media. It will be interesting to see if, following his death, a secret lover, male or female, is unearthed. Perhaps 'interesting' is the wrong word. It's really nobody's business. It's quite possible that Heath was one of that minority of people for whom sex was not very important. After all, if some people are 'sex addicts', there must be others whose sex drive is abnormally low.

It's worth noting that Heath was strongly opposed to the Iraq war. As was Dennis Healey from the other side of the political fence. What they have in common is that they fought in the last world war, and with some distinction in both cases. It's not universally true but it's frequently the case that such people, who have seen the horror of war at first hand, are more likely to regard going to war as a measure of last resort.
Curiously, it's the children of the Sixties like the long-haired, guitar-strumming, prancing, posing, public school, Christian Tony Blair who have no compunction about bombing civilian populations to oblivion. And he's strongly supported by others of his generation like the ex-Communist John Reid and the former student radical Jack Straw.

It's an odd thing that 'Grocer Heath', who had no connection with the grocery trade, was succeeded by the daughter of a grocer. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the nickname given to Heath by Private Eye came from the fact that his main political achievement before becoming Prime Minister was the abolition of Resale Price Maintenance. Prior to that, a loaf of bread cost the same wherever you bought it and today's supermarket price wars would have been impossible. You could argue that 'Buy One Get One Free' is as much his legacy as our entry into the European Community.
But since Heath was not a bad person and because he had such a famous loathing of Margaret Thatcher, I won't say BOGOF but rather Rest In Peace, Ted.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Biting Back, Toothlessly

If you read a newspaper that has a Corrections column, it's absolutely vital that you read the corrections.
The Observer today informs us that an article last week about a headteacher who turned around a failing school was wrong in virtually every respect.
Last week's paper had also said the composer Stockhausen was delighted by the attack on the World Trade Centre and called it a work of art. This would have stayed in my mind forever had I not read today's correction. He said no such thing. He condemned the attack and said it was 'Lucifer's greatest work of art'.

If quality papers like The Observer and Guardian are full of such colossal inaccuracies, how much worse must the tabloids be? And most of the latter don't publish corrections, unless forced to do so for legal reasons.
I wish The Guardian and The Observer would also tell us what action was taken against the staff who failed to check their facts and what they are doing to reduce the level of inaccuracies.
As a blogger I don't have the same degree of responsibility. But I do try not to write things that are factually wrong and do check for typos and spelling errors. Inevitably, some slip through. And checking facts by using Google is notoriously dangerous. Because a fact appears on the first three dozen websites you find doesn't mean it's true. Maybe that's where journalists are coming unstuck today. But as an unpaid blogger writing in my living room I don't have much choice but to use internet searches. I can't ring up Mr Stockhausen or Cabinet Ministers to check if they really said something. But if I found them quoted on The Observer website I would regard that as a reliable source.
Big mistake.


Still with The Observer, Nick Cohen today criticises the BBC for refusing to use value-laden terms like 'terrorist' because one man's 'terrorist' is another man's 'freedom fighter'.
As a critique of moral relativism this is a perfectly legitimate line of argument, whether you agree with it or not.
But I was hoping that, in the interests of balance, Cohen would also condemn the American and British military and their Governments for calling civilian casualties 'collateral damage'.
That he didn't do so may be because he is one of those left-wing columnists (like David Aaronivitch) who strongly supported the Iraq war.
In today's article, referring to Saddam, Cohen says "After 30 years of pitiless rule, he is overthrown by a foreign invader."
If you'd just arrived from Mars, this might suggest there had been a bloodless coup or that the Allies had managed to assasinate Saddam. In reality, of course, Saddam lives. 100,000 innocent Iraqi men, women, children and babies are dead. This fact is conveniently omitted from Cohen's summary of events in Iraq.

I wish that, just once, people like Cohen would say unequivocally that they think the mass slaughter of Iraqi civilians was morally justified. They clearly think that it was so why don't they have the guts to say so openly instead of carefully avoiding referring to it?
Their difficulty is that once you say that killing civilians is a means that is justified by a political end, then you can only criticise those with a different political end or world view who do so by saying that it's all right when we do it but not when others do.
It's true that some Iraqis believe it was a price worth paying. Many of those are expatriates living in Britain and America. Whether the families of the dead think so or whether the dead would have volunteered for self-sacrifice in order to get rid of Saddam we have no way of knowing. Indeed, the Iraqi dead mattered so little that the Allied forces never bothered to count them.

When those of us who take the logically consistent position that killing civilians in any cause is wrong, we are not guilty of moral relativism. It doesn't mean that we think a society run by Muslim fundamentalists (or Christian fundamentalists, for that matter) is as acceptable as a secular, liberal democracy. The moral relativists are people like Cohen who, whilst rightly condemning the London suicide bombers, regard the 'shock and awe' bombing or Baghdad from the air as, at worst, a regrettable necessity.

On a lighter note, I have toothache. The only means of stopping it is not to eat anything, so I've eaten just one bowl of soup in the past 36 hours. But that's no big deal. Many people in Africa would be glad of a bowl of soup every 36 hours. And I might now be able to get into several old pairs of jeans.
Nevertheless, tomorrow I shall visit the dentist. But I have a dilemma. A partial denture, for which I paid nearly £500 only 18 months ago, has fallen apart and now contains only one tooth instead of eight. That's what has triggered the current problem. But do I have a blazing row with the dentist about the denture before he pulls out the decaying tooth? It doesn't seem a good idea to fall out with someone who has the capacity to exact revenge in such a painful way.

Many people make the mistake of being rude to waiters who then spit in their soup. Graham Norton tells the story of how, as a waiter, he pissed in the coffee of a man who had been difficult. But his revenge misfired when another waiter gave the coffee to a different customer.
Years ago when I worked for a railway company we used to put people who had been rude to us into sleeper compartments directly over the wheels so they would have a rickety and sleepless night.
People seem to forget that people in low grade jobs who are unable to hit them or answer back will always find other ways of getting their revenge. And, in my experience, it's usually wealthy, middle class people who make this elementary mistake.
Of course, dentistry is not a low grade job. But it's still a manual, mechanical occupation even though it's physically only about six inches away from brain surgery.

It's a depressing thought that, having been cursed with bad teeth, I've probably spent more hours in the dentist's chair than I have spent having sex. The only consolation is that it's only dentists who have ever used the phrase 'just a little prick'.

Oh, come on......did you really think I'd mention dentists without doing that gag?
You want original material, write it yourselves. I'm off to suck some minestrone through a straw.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Janet and John Go To The Proms

Last night was the First Night of the Proms. For the first time, the first hour was broadcast on BBC1 rather than BBC2. Flicking channels, I stumbled across it and was amazed to find that, for the benefit of the thickos who watch the BBC's mass audience channel, captions were being displayed along the bottom of the screen:
'The violinist is playing the main theme'.
'This theme is now taken up by the rest of the orchestra'.
'This man is called a conductor'.
'The stick he is waving is called a baton.'

OK, I made the last two up. Or maybe I didn't. I didn't stay with it long enough to see how detailed the explanations would become.
Was the coverage handed over to the Blue Peter production team?
Was this a laudable effort to make 'serious music' 'accessible' to a wider audience?
Or was it the most patronising load of bollocks ever perpetrated by the world's greatest broadcaster?

I'm unable to watch orchestras on television anyway. This is because of 'Lord Privy Seal' syndrome, a term coined by The Frost Report over 30 years ago. This requires that when the violins are playing, a camera is on the violins, ditto the brass, ditto the woodwind and every other section of the orchestra, with occasional shots of the conductor, preferably when he's at his most histrionic.
The effect is to deconstruct the piece of music, to break it down into its component parts. But music is to listen to. It's not a spectator sport. And when I listen to a symphony I'm not conscious of the individual instruments, just the overall sound and what the music is saying to me at an emotional level. I concede that this may partly be because I am so musically illiterate that I think a quaver is a crisp-like snack.

It wasn't always like this. When I was barely out of nappies, the single BBC TV channel broadcast concerts on Sunday afternoons. There was one camera in the auditorium giving a single view of the whole orchestra - much the same view you would get as a member of the audience in the hall. Little Willie would stand on a pouffe in our living room and conduct the orchestra with one of his mother's knitting needles.
[for overseas readers, and to avoid any confusion, a 'pouffe' is a type of small footstool or seat].
Unfortunately, my mother misinterpreted my behaviour and thought I was destined for a glittering musical career. The result was that I spent several traumatic years not learning to play the violin while a succession of tutors built conservatories and bought second homes on the proceeds of lying to my mother and saying I was 'coming along nicely'. I'll describe that in more detail one day when I've arranged to have a therapist on standby.
But my point is that my limited knowledge of classical music was mostly acquired from the BBC from a very early age and without any attempts at explanation, interpretation or making it 'accessible'.
Because music doesn't use language, there are no barriers to communication. You either like the sound it makes or you don't. You could explain and interpret Country and Western music to me from Nashville to Doomsday but the sound of it would still make me retch.

At secondary school a mad music teacher with a Hitler moustache used to play us Fingal's Cave and bend over an ancient record player, cupping his ear with his hand, and tell us that the music was making the sound of waves on the shore. With the greatest respect to Mendelssohn, it never sounded to me anything like waves breaking on the shore, just an orchestra going 'Da da, Da da da da'.
Admittedly, we were as far from the sea as you can get in England and on our occasional trips to Weston-Super-Mare the sea was a kind of distant mirage across the mud flats of the Bristol Channel, so we were no experts on the sounds of the sea. But as Huxley Junior said to me, it would surely have been a lot less trouble and have produced a less ambiguous result if Mendelssohn had stuck a microphone in the sand and recorded the actual sounds of the waves on an LP.
I tended to trust Huxley Junior's opinions on such matters, despite the fact that when he had tried to anticipate our sex education lesson by telling us where the man put his thing he had turned out to be alarmingly wide of the mark. But Huxley's reputation was such that one boy stubbornly clung to Huxley's version of reproduction and insisted that Doctor Robinson was lying to us as part of some adult conspiracy to keep us in ignorance.

As it happens, the BBC's fatuous subtitles were over a piece by Mendelsshon. And they told you as much about the music as a sex education lesson can tell you about sex. They were essentially about the mechanics of the piece. They told you a theme was being passed around from the soloist to the sections of the orchestra like a game of musical pass-the-parcel. It told you nothing about the experience of either playing the music or listening to it. And to understand and appreciate it - or not - you have to experience it. Not an easy thing to do if you're simultaneously trying to read a scrolling text that says 'here comes the secondary theme' and 'Mendelssohn wrote this for his friend who was a violinist'. It's about as transcendental and spontaneous an experience as making love with a Cosmopolitan feature 50 Ways To Please Your Man propped up on the pillow.

It doesn't greatly matter whether you think pizzicato is a pizza delivery service or that fellatio is a movement played in a descending scale. You'll still be able to make beautiful music between the sheets and the earth will still move for you when you listen to Mendelssohn or Mahler.

I seem to remember that although I couldn't play a note on the violin with the bow, I wasn't too bad at pizzicato. Indeed, I thought I once heard one of my violin teachers say to his wife "that little plucker is unbelievable."

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Where Was I?

Yes, I have been unwell. Nothing serious, but a severe cold in the middle of a heatwave is not a pleasant thing. And, like an old banger, once I stop it takes a lot to get me started again. It can sometimes require men in boiler suits lying underneath me and poking around with screwdrivers and monkey wrenches and warning that spare parts for these models have been discontinued. Or so I might say if I were given to tediously extended metaphors.

Thank you for all your enquiries. Blogger has suddenly started emailing me comments again so they all arrived at once. I thought I had been silent for only a few days but time goes quickly when you're not enjoying yourself.

In return I offer you these red roses, captured with a blood-smeared digital camera a few minutes ago. I had been dead-heading them and they fought back, pricking my fingers. First prick I've had for ages, I muttered. Then, in my celebrated Gielgud impression, I essayed 'if you prick us, do we not bleed?' before I noticed the builders next door watching me over the fence and dived headfirst off the step ladder into the delphiniums.

For those of a horticultural bent, the rose is a climbing variety called Parkdirektor Riggers. The name suggests it is of Dutch provenance and therefore thrives on flat ground surrounded by dykes and with regular mulchings of rotted cannabis leaves. In what is technically known as 'companion planting' I put a clump of chives at its base but a small windmill might have been more successful.


Was there any humour to be found in the terrible events of last week? Probably not. And yet a man whose leg had been blown off told the woman who was comforting him that it was a good thing that London had got the 2012 Olympics as he could now be the first to enter the Paralympics. I thought that was the most remarkable story to emerge from the London bombings.

Humour is one of the most powerful enemies of fanaticism. Wasn't it Orwell who said that if British soldiers did the goosestep people in the streets would laugh at them?

I found one lighter moment in the hours of news coverage last Thursday. One of the rounds in Have I Got News For You? features a 'guest publication', a minority interest title that is improbable or boring, or both. In an example of life imitating art, at one of the press conferences after the bombings a question was put by a reporter from 'Municipal Engineering'.
While other reporters were trying to discover the number of fatalities, the person from Municipal Engineering was eager to discover the precise method being used to shore up the tube tunnels. One can only assume that the front page lead in their next edition will be 'Tube Tunnel Casings Suffer Serious Damage In Bomb Blasts'.

Actually, I did start to write a blog post last week but stopped because I thought the medication for my cold was causing hallucinations.
A dozen or so 12 year old girls in skimpy swimming costumes marched down the street accompanied by a loudspeaker van playing 'I Want To Have Sex On The Beach!'
Numerous middle-aged men were taking photographs and video footage of this spectacle.
The police were in attendance but no arrests were being made.
Then I remembered it was the Village Carnival.

Shortly afterwards, a 14 year old boy and girl drove past in what looked like an open-top wedding car, the girl clutching a bouquet. A cardboard sign announced that they were the 'Carnival King and Queen'.
One doesn't want to be unkind but the boy looked rather like Elvis in the final months of his life and was clearly no stranger to a family bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. This probably explained why the girl's expression suggested she was thawing a packet of frozen Turkey Twizzlers between her legs and why a thought bubble over her head said "Christ, what a minger!"
Still, it was a neat bit of gender and heterosexist role-playing, all topped off with the maraschino cherry of monarchism.

I'd no sooner swallowed another handful of Ibuprofen when a flat-bed lorry drove past carrying local cub scouts dressed as construction workers and wearing bright yellow hard hats.
Not a badge or a woggle in sight.
Was this some kind of visual pun on the phrase 'Village People'? Or had someone been rash enough to ask the Scout Leader if he had any ideas for fancy dress?
It later occurred to me that it might have been a tribute to Bob The Builder, which I understand is a children's programme sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry to try and remedy the chronic shortage of building workers. If so, I hope James, my esteemed fellow-blogger, gets some royalties from the Carnival Committee.
Seems a bit hard on the boys though. The little girls of the village get to march along screaming for sex on the beach while the young boys have to stand still in hard hats dreaming of reinforced concrete joists.
That Germaine Greer has a lot to answer for.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Jacques, Vous Avez Raison

British comedians often make jokes against the French, often quite vicious ones. Quite recently I saw the phrase 'Nazi collaborators' get a big laugh.
Yet Jacques Chirac makes some light-hearted comments in private about British food and there's a huge brouhaha.
But what Chirac said was essentially true.

The media have been wheeling out various high profile British chefs in defence of our gastronomic standards. But this is to miss the crucial point: ordinary, everyday food as eaten by the majority of the British is very bad. Away from the row over Chirac's comments, the massive problem of poor diets and obesity is never out of the news. Have we already forgotten the horrific revelations in Jamie Oliver's campaign on school dinners?
The Oliver campaign prompted people to take a look at the superb school meals served in France. Some French schools even give parents a print-out of the menus for the whole school year so they don't give little Pierre and Marie-Claire the same meals in the evening that they had at lunchtime at school.

The British and French have a totally different attitude to food, a fact discovered by generations of French children who have come to Britain on exchange visits. The dubious delights of Birds Eye and Bernard Matthews give many of them a lifelong dislike of British food and sometimes of Britain itself.
It's true that cookery programmes and cookery books have never been more popular but this is cooking as entertainment and something you do for a special occasion. Most British people are simply not prepared to invest the time in lengthy food preparation to prepare good quality, fresh, healthy meals on a daily basis. The French are and we should respect them for it.


I said recently that casting directors should exercise more caution, after seeing Coronation Street's detective pop up as a criminal in The Bill.
But here's something even more extraordinary from last night's Coronation Street.
A frequently shown commercial for one of the great probiotic scams shows a young boy standing outside a school waiting for his mother to collect him.
The mother, having ingested vast amounts of 'good bacteria', appears on roller skates and in a crash helmet and zooms around the playground at 40 miles per hour.
Cut to last night's Corrie. The same boy is standing outside a school waiting to be collected.
(Casting Director: have you still got the uniform from the probiotic commercial? That will save wardrobe getting you one).

This time he's collected by Claire from Streetcars, in a taxi rather than on roller skates. But he does the same puzzled look as when he saw his mother on roller skates. Maybe puzzled looks are this 12 year old's specialty and are mentioned in his Spotlight Directory entry. He might build a whole career around them. If he learns to scratch his head as well he could take over from Charlie in Casualty one day.
But once again this thoughtless piece of casting had me inventing my own sub-plot. Well, I had no choice. Corrie never explained why the bemused son of Probiotic Woman was suddenly being collected from school in a Weatherfield taxi.
The sad truth is that Social Services had sent the taxi to take him to a foster home because his mother was now in The Priory, heavily sedated, after gangsta tripping on probiotic milk drinks and speed skating round Sainsbury's singing 'Mmm, Danone.'
Poor little blighter.

BBC executives play a constant game of musical chairs but did you know that they also play their own private version of Changing Rooms?
I discovered this from an interview with the new head of children's television in yesterday's Guardian.
Her predecessor had apparently turned her office into a cosy front room, complete with a fireplace.
The new woman has "smartly restyled it, with stripped hard wood floor, leather sofas and a sleek desk."
Good to know that our constantly rising licence fee is allowing these people to indulge their tastes in interior design.
I know it's small change when children's TV alone has a budget of £100 million. But how many people at the less glitzy end of the public sector would be allowed to give their offices frequent, expensive makeovers on taxpayers' money?