Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Brits

I tried to watch The Brits last night. I really did try. Honestly.
But men of a certain age probably shouldn't even attempt to do so because you find that you're turning into your father.

Some of the music is pleasant enough if you hear it on the radio. But to watch these people perform produces a degree of irritation that is unendurable. Both Bono and Chris Martin lunged around the stage in the most bizarre bodily contortions as though they had cerebral palsy. Why, for God's sake?
The other night, an excellent documentary on the great Tony Bennett showed him standing completely still in his renditions, apart from a few hand movements. Yet his interpretation of the lyrics was mind-blowing and on one occasion moved me to tears.
Of course, with most pop music the lyrics are such incomprehensible or meaningless shite that there's nothing to interpret anyway, even assuming that the singer's diction is good enough to decipher the lyrics, which it seldom is.

The Red Carpet ritual for The Brits had one of the most unappealing backdrops imaginable: the urban wasteland of part of Earl's Court.
The interviews consisted almost entirely of the female interviewer and stars saying to each other "Oh my God! You look gorgeous!" Plus those strange contemporary constructions like "I'm loving the shoes!" (instead of "I love your shoes").
Do they really mean these fulsome compliments? (A rare correct use of 'fulsome'). Or are they thinking "Fuck me, who let the dogs out?"

Watching just the first twenty minutes meant that I saw that strange opening set with Mathew Horne and James Corden looking like two ladyboys who had been blindfolded and told to get dressed from a fetishist's wardrobe.
By this morning I'd just about got the image out of my head and then the Guardian go and put a photo of them on page 3.
According to the Guardian they're doing "the hand jive." I must take the word of the teenagers who write for the Guardian on that one. But if you'd asked me, I'd have betted that a 'hand jive' was a euphemism for something you wouldn't do on ITV at 8 o'clock in the evening. Well, a toss-up between that and something that Sharon the physio gets the geriatrics to do in the day room of the nursing home.
"Time for your hand jive, Mr Lupin."
"Ooh, Matron......"

Friday, February 13, 2009

I've been following some advice I thought I heard on the radio: don't blog unless your blog post is absolutely necessary. And I doubt that since blogging was invented there has ever been a blog post that was absolutely necessary. Certainly none of mine.
Anyway, most of the snow has now gone, apart from the tops of the hills. But while it lasted the silence was blissful. No morning rush hour, no buses running and the snow muffling footsteps. No postal deliveries so no bills for a week.

There was also the fun of joining the throng of people round the empty milk shelves in the supermarket, ready to pounce if a delivery should arrive. Some of these people that one didn't know from Adam actually started chatting. It's just like the Blitz, one thought. The second thought being: no, it isn't. A few inches of snow has stopped a milk delivery; the Germans aren't trying to bomb us to Kingdom Come.. And the few people in the village who might have experienced the latter are so old that they are trapped in their homes by the weather.
But still we cling to our 'folk memory'. So when the milk and bread was being rationed we said again: it's just like the war!


What bliss it must be to be alive at the moment if you're a Mail reader. First, it was Carole Thatcher being sacked for saying 'golliwog'. Then it was bus services cancelled on safety grounds because of the snow. The political correctness/health and safety gone mad brigade must be in an almost permanent state of orgasmic indignation.

Now today we have the publicity about a 13 year old father (12 when his baby was conceived). This has provoked the finest piece of Darwin-related idiocy I've yet heard. Someone told Radio Five this morning that our high rate of teenage pregnancy was caused by telling children "the fairy tale of evolution". So poor old Charles is responsible for every young girl that gets up the duff. Incredible.

A presenter called Victoria Derbyshire kept saying that at 12 years old you wouldn't have any idea how to have sex.
What planet is this woman on? The mechanics of sex are pretty simple and the practice of sex is fairly instinctive.
When I was 12 more than 40 years ago (before, according to Larkin, sexual intercourse had been invented) we knew how to have sex even if we had never done so. Most of us knew this even before we had our ludicrous sex education lessons. And, unlike today's kids, we didn't have access to sexual material on the internet.


The BBC's BAFTA 'Red Carpet' programme was presented by Claudia Winkelman, a woman who had not previously impinged on my consciousness. Her fawning over Hollywood film stars brought shame on the BBC and on the country.
She said to Jennifer Lopez: "You look so beautiful that I want to smell your hair. But I won't because that would be weird."
Ms Lopez said: "Yes, that would be weird", and glared at her with a mixture of bafflement and extreme distaste. As well she might since this woman was clearly deranged - like so many TV presenters today.

Televisual highlight of the week was Paxman's appearance on The One Show. He viewed the proceedings with all the disdain of an Evangelical Christian who had accidentally wandered into a gay sauna.
Giles Brandreth delivered a report on the House of Lords. Paxo said he thought Brandreth was already in the Lords because there must be some reason why he constantly appeared on television (the implication being that talent was certainly not the reason). Then, as Brandreth spoke about the Lords, Paxo rolled his eyes and eventually exploded with: "You don't really believe all that rubbish, do you?" It was wonderful to see someone cut through the blandness of The One Show.
I think Paxman is much misunderstood because he is very rarely actually angry and most of the time he is joking, as he clearly was on this occasion.

The great problem with magazine shows like The One Show is the juxtaposition of diverse items and how you link them.
Not so long ago I saw Christine Bleakley laughing uproariously with a guest who was a comedian, then turn to another camera, switch to a serious face and say "And now, Thalidomide....."
I laughed so much that I choked on my dinner.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Monday's Murmurings

I assume the BBC will not in future screen Party Political Broadcasts since these would compromise its impartiality and we stupid viewers might think that the BBC itself was urging us to vote for a particular party.


A nice man phones me from British Telecom.
He asks why I no longer purchase my telephone calls from them.
I tell him that my Internet Service Provider gives me free UK phone calls without any restrictions.
Do I pay them a monthly fee for this, he asks.
No, I tell him. I pay them nothing, apart from my normal internet fee.
He asks if I am happy with this arrangement. This is a question that almost demands a sarcastic reply but I don't give one because he's only doing his job.
Thank you and goodbye, he says.
As a 'Come back to BT' pitch it has been a dismal failure.

But this is one reason that BT's profits are dropping like a stone and why they are now increasing their line rental charge which we must all pay (unless we use cable), regardless of whether we use BT for our phone calls.

It demonstrates what an absurd mess privatisation of telecoms was.
BT retains a monopoly of the landline infrastructure and the responsibility of maintaining it. But they struggle to compete with other companies on the cost of calls. As they continue to lose customers, we can expect the cost of line rentals to go on rising. Then more and more younger customers won't bother with landlines at all but just use mobiles.

It would be better if the landline network was state-owned and commercial call providers paid a fee to use it. Line rentals could be substantially reduced. They do, after all, impact most severely on those least able to afford them and on the elderly for whom landlines are a lifeline.


Obama has already been condemned by the Vatican.
He must be doing something right, then.


The Mirror recently sent me some discount vouchers. I didn't expect to use them but this weekend they were also giving away free low-energy lightbulbs so I got the Mirror cheap and added four lightbulbs to my growing collection.
There can be little long-term benefit from these promotions by newpapers because most people, like me, will grab the goodies and never buy them again. But it was interesting to see how little the tabloids have changed since Keith Waterhouse wrote his famous book 'On Newspaper Style'.
They still speak a language that almost nobody speaks in real life, in many cases imposed by the space constraints on headlines. So 'friends' are always 'pals', the police always 'quiz' people and 'children' are always 'tots'. In many stories they are 'tragic tots'.

They also have the strange habit in their editorials of writing the final paragraph in italics and underlined. But these days, for many of us, the instinctive reaction of seeing underlining is to reach for a non-existent mouse and click on the link.
But they don't do this on the online version so there the final rhetorical flourish goes unemphasised. That's a pity. So here, with proper emphasis, is an example of the Mirror's wondrous wit and wisdom:

"Having the family pop in to see your new home is a ritual and the Obamas are no different.
Except when the relatives leave the White House, a US President doesn't just have to tidy up - he's got a world to run

How can a humble blogger compete with quality like that? This small gem of insight is only slightly undermined by the fact that a US President doesn't actually have to tidy up and run the Hoover round. Not even a President as down with the people as Obama.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thank God For Sky And CNN

I criticised the BBC's coverage of the Presidential election and there's now general agreement that it was a shambles, redeemed only by Gore Vidal's tired and emotional spat with David Dimbleby.
The BBC's coverage of the Inauguration yesterday was equally dreadful. I'm amazed that a broadcaster with the BBC's reputation could get it so wrong. It was misjudgement piled on misjudgement.

Some things probably seemed a good idea at the planning meetings.
Let's include a British angle. How people here are reacting to Obama, especially the black community. Let's do an OB from the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham.
Except that they cut away to Tottenham not long before Obama appeared on the podium. Fearing they might not go back to Washington in time, I had to flick to Sky.
With an event of this magnitude, a broadcaster must stay at the location. By all means switch between different vantage points and do reports from the crowd. But the viewer doesn't want to miss anything and wants the illusion of being there with a ringside seat.

The other massive misjudgement of the BBC correspondents was never to shut the fuck up. There's a time for analysis but it's not minutes before the ceremony starts. That was not the time for Matt Frei to embark on a description of the changing role of the Vice-President over the years.
The golden rule, ignored by the BBC's prima donnas but admirably followed by Sky, is to sometimes shut up and let the pictures and the sound feed speak for themselves.
"Let's just watch this for a while", Sky's Jeremy Thompson would say, or "let's just listen to the crowd for a bit."

Maybe the control freaks at the BBC didn't like having to use pooled pictures, for if you flicked through the news channels the pictures were usually identical. So they kept cutting away to their own OBs and pre-recorded packages.

Like Sky, the CNN gang also knew when to shut up. And one simply has to spend some time with CNN on these occasions if only to see those magical names appear on screen: Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash.
Yesterday they also had a political correspondent called Candy Crowley who complained that she was immediately in front of the Presidential limousine on a flat-bed truck, looking like the Wreck of the Hesperus (an old expression my mother used to use). Perhaps when she agreed to this she misheard the producer's question: 'Are you up for a truck?'

CNN like some technological wizardry on these occasions. One of them this time was an exclusive satellite picture of the events which showed the crowds as a dense grey blur "looking like ants". Given how long we've had satellite pictures, this didn't exactly have the Wow Factor.

The Inaugural Luncheon was a curiously homely affair, resembling a small town Rotary Lunch rather than an historic state occasion. Two old buffers, including Ted Kennedy, collapsed during the meal. This reminded me of the time I addressed a Rotary Dinner and several elderly gentlemen appeared to have died. But, on closer inspection, they were just asleep.
At the end of the meal, Obama and Biden were each presented with a lead crystal bowl. The other guests were all given a souvenir vase (or 'vaize' as it was described.) All that was missing was the thank-you to the Secretary's wife Wilma for the lovely flower arrangements and a request that members give the Treasurer their money for the forthcoming trip to a cheese factory.

The evening (UK time) brought the Inaugural Parade and the thought that Obama is either a very good actor or very weird, either of which are troubling. For has any man ever looked so delighted at watching 637 Marching Bands? And this horror was inflicted on the world soon after the announcement that America would abandon the practice of torture.

I sat up until eleven in the hope of seeing the Gay and Lesbian Band but without success. When Sky said the parade might last another two hours I gave up and went to bed.
The Gay Band were a late addition to balance the participation of a homophobic preacher in the inauguration. But they were probably at the back of the parade, which may well be where gay people will be in the administration's priorities. This little episode is a good example of the 'being all things to all men' school of politics - the skill of the harlot throughout the ages.
But it's early days. For now, let's content ourselves with bashing the BBC.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Historic Moment

It would be pointless to try to downplay it.
The words 'historic' and 'landmark' are unavoidable.
It's something many of us thought we would never see.
The judge in last night's Coronation Street trial was black.

So too were a solicitor and a court official but they could be dismissed as long-established tokenism.
The last judge we saw in Corrie was played by Ken Barlow's real-life wife, which might be considered traditional nepotism. But this one was black with a small beard.
He might even have been Muslim. Indeed, since the defendant John Stape is slightly deranged, I thought that, in a bizarre plot twist, he might have converted to Islam in jail and opted for a Sharia Court.
However, in a Sharia court it would probably have been John's victim, Rosie Webster, who was in the dock for persistently wearing skirts that those more vulgar than me describe as 'pussy pelmets.' And with any luck she'd have been stoned to death. (The first stone, or cobble, being thrown by Blanche who would then settle down to watch the rest of the proceedings whilst knitting a cardigan for Ken).


Over on Channel 4, Heston Blumenthal set about reviving the fortunes of the Little Chef chain. It seemed an appropriate task for someone whose parents named him after a motorway service station - Heston Services on the M4.
(I wrote that joke and then discovered this was true, according to Blumenthal himself. Unless he himself was joking. We'll probably never know. Have any other parents done this? Are there people walking around called Leigh Delamere, Watford Gap or Scotch Corner?)
Anyway, crazy name, crazy guy.
No, literally. Blumenthal is completely bonkers. But he's achieved great fame and presumably wealth by creating publicity-generating dishes like snail porridge and egg and bacon ice cream.
Personally, I'd rather eat an unreconstructed Little Chef breakfast than any of Blumenthal's idiotic, poncy creations.

His Tasting Menu at The Fat Duck includes a seafood course where customers are served a sea shell with an iPod inside it playing sounds of the sea. As any child knows, you can hear the sound of the sea if you put a shell to your ear. You don't need to put a fucking iPod inside the shell.
Blumenthal told us that several customers had literally wept while undergoing the sea shell experience.
Well yes. I think I might weep too if I'd paid £122 for the Tasting Menu (plus up to £165 per person for a selection of wines by the glass) and found myself sitting there like a twat with headphones plugged into an old sea shell.
I think I'd rather take my own iPod along to a Little Chef and feast on their famous microwaved scrambled eggs.
Wearing a shell suit.
And shelling out less than a tenner.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Problem With Fiction

"These days, a book he [Rebus] disliked was unlikely to last ten pages of his concentration."
- Knots and Crosses, Ian Rankin.

When I was young, I read a lot of fiction. I was mostly working my way through the nineteenth century classic novels - Hardy, Eliot, Austen, Thackeray, etc. - plus some less commonly read authors like Thomas Love Peacock. I also read quite a lot of contemporary fiction. But for many years now I have found novels impossible to read.

Every so often I make another attempt. Sometimes I choose a book by a hugely successful writer, partly to try and see how they do it and partly on the assumption that, whatever its literary shortcomings, it will at least be entertaining. But I always toss it aside after a few pages.
There can be several reasons for this.
If, after a few pages, I don't know who the characters are or where the location is or see the beginnings of a plot, I become angry and abandon the book. I recently threw down an Ian Rankin book because for several pages he failed to explain the relationship of one character to another - wife?, girlfriend?, mistress?, daughter? Oh, for fuck's sake! I don't mind waiting till the last page to find out who the murderer was but when a new character appears I want to know within three paragraphs who they are.

I also have a problem with badly constructed sentences: those sentences you have to go back and read again because the meaning wasn't clear or there was a confusing ambiguity. If that happens more than once, I'm finished.
I don't entirely blame the authors. Everyone writes a bad sentence sometimes. But these people have editors and copy readers. I'm amazed at how much bad writing you find in the books of very successful, highly-respected authors. That's why I get angry: some of these people are multi-millionaires but are ignorant of the basics of their craft. I've never read J.K.Rowling but her former English teacher claims she is one of those people who doesn't know the difference between a comma and a full stop. To put it another way: she doesn't know what a sentence is.

I keep trying again because, much as I love biographies, diaries, social history, politics and science, I sometimes crave the childlike comfort of escaping into another world and being hooked by the plot of a good detective novel. So I've just started reading Ian Rankin's first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses (1987). So far, so good. I think I might even finish this one.
The author, in an introduction written in 2005, is disarmingly frank about this early book's shortcomings. "I was a young man in love with language, striving for a voice and sometimes overreaching."

So it may be unfair of me to criticise the use of language. I do so only because a choice of word or phrase is another thing that can bring my reading to an abrupt halt while I puzzle over the writer's exact meaning:
"Rebus shrugged, feeling a slight sensation of attrition in one of his shoulders."
Don't you just hate it when you get that slight sensation of attrition in your shoulder? The last time I mentioned attrition to my doctor he said "Bless you! But don't sneeze all over my desk."
It's not technically incorrect, as a dictionary will reveal. But it's an unusual usage. So is this:
"He sucked luxuriously on his short, tipped cigarette."
We know what he means here but we have to do an instant translation: luxuriously=deeply. "Sucked luxuriously" seems to have escaped from an erotic novel.

Then there's this:
"The reporter looked interested again. When he was interested in something, his shoulders shivered slightly."
For me, this is far more problematic:

"Puzzled, Lupin went to light a cigarette. Then he remembered he had stopped smoking so instead he sucked luxuriously on a Nicorette inhalator.
''When he was interested, his shoulders shivered."
What the fuck?, Lupin muttered to himself. He put the book down and closed his eyes, trying to visualise a shivering shoulder, symbolic of interest.
It was no good. The body language made no sense.
He tried to recall someone - anyone - whose shoulders had shivered in anticipation of what he was going to say. People sometimes shivered after he had spoken. That was the effect he had on people. He was that kind of guy. Often it was followed by "
Fuck off, you creep." But he'd never noticed any shoulder action.

Lupin moved to the bathroom mirror and experimented with interrogative twitches of his shoulders. But he just looked like a slack Thunderbirds puppet doing an impression of a pimp.
Worse, he was starting to feel a sensation of attrition.
And, at this rate, finishing the book would be a long war of attrition.
Back on page 7, "Rebus shrugged his shoulders."
Still on page 7: "Rebus shrugged again."
Christ! This guy shrugs more times than a Frenchman on speed.
Still, you know where you are with a shrug. A shrug is nice and clear.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

All White Is Still All Right

Yesterday the news was dominated by some mildly injudicious remarks about the economy by a junior Minister.
The big story of the day was almost totally ignored by all media: a BBC West documentary had uncovered racial discrimination in the employment and accommodation sectors on a truly massive scale.
Of 30 employment agencies, all but five agreed to send only white workers for the job. It was all done with a nod and a wink of course, and often an acknowledgement that it wasn't allowed. But they still agreed to break the law. As one woman charmingly put it, she would just send "normal people", i.e., white people.
The figure was less for letting agencies but, even so, more than half (17) out of 30 agreed not to send non-white tenants to view properties.

I've sometimes wondered if I'm guilty of exaggeration in asserting that racism remains deeply-rooted and endemic in our society. But this research (admittedly small-scale and unscientific) does seem to confirm my belief that the political establishment are hopelessly out of touch when they say that racism is a minority problem and that Britain today is a "tolerant" society.

Similar discrimination is found in the B & B and Guest House sector. The laws of 30 years ago removed the 'No Blacks' signs from windows but the discrimination just became covert.
I laughed at the recent rumpus over guest houses being forced to accept gay couples (assuming they could identify them) because they could simply do what they do with blacks - say they are fully-booked. It's incredibly difficult to prove discrimination. If a white a person is offered a room just a few minutes after a black person was refused, the owner simply says they'd just had a phone call cancelling a booking. You have to show a pattern of refusals over a period of time in order to bring a prosecution.
I knew of a guest house owner who always demanded to know the race of prospective clients. If challenged, she would say this was so that she could buy in the appropriate ethnic food to make them feel at home which seemed to show her in a good light. In reality, it was so that she could say 'no room at the inn.'

Can anyone deny that the BBC's findings are vastly more important than Prince Harry privately calling a colleague a 'Paki'?
The only way to reduce the scale of discrimination is to use the equivalent of 'mystery shoppers' to expose it and bring prosecutions. It wouldn't change the underlying attitudes but it might force compliance with the law when word of court cases went round the employment agencies, letting agencies and other sectors.

Link to programme website: