Saturday, 12 April 2014

Fail better

Why do ‘high achievers’ (not a phrase I care for) so often feel like failures? ‘We share our lives with the people we have failed to be,’ writes Adam Phillips in his book Missing Out. ‘Once the next life - the better life, the fuller life - has to be in this one we have a considerable task on our hands. Now someone is asking us not only to survive but to flourish, not simply or solely to be good but to make the most of our lives … Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life - the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life - the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legimated by nothing more than the desire to live it.’

In the modern university, as in most market-led public services, failure is no longer considered an option. Everything must be satisficing, which means that much is mediocre - neither a ruinous failure nor a spectacular success. Google, by contrast, has a sub-division, Google [x], which it describes as a ‘moonshot factory’, where its engineers collaborate on audacious ideas. Its head is reported on the BBC news website as saying: ‘You must reward people for failing … If not, they won’t take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don’t reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organisation’s spirit.’

I would love to set up a moonshot factory in a modern university that rewarded failure. For surely any creative activity worth doing contains within it the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of failure. Most conversations, at least the ones I seem to be involved with, are failed attempts at communication. Teaching is mostly about failure, because it is based on conversation and words are always liable to fall on stony ground. Reading is about failure, because most of what we read we forget, and quite a lot of it is not as interesting as we thought it would be. Writing is about failure because, even if we manage to finish something and send it out into the world, we will mostly come up against a wall of indifference made of people who have other things on their mind and other things to read and write. ‘Any kind of effort to make linkage via signs is a gamble,’ writes the philosopher John Durham Peters in his book Speaking into the Air. ‘To the question, How can we really know we have communicated? there is no ultimate answer besides a pragmatic one that our subsequent actions seem to act in some kind of concert.’  In other words, you just keep throwing enough mud at the wall until some of it sticks. Maybe you only have to succeed once, or at least to fail less catastrophically. As Samuel Beckett put it in Worstward Ho: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘If your daily life seems poor do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.’ - Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mr Willett's summer time


A little quote in honour of the clocks going forward:
 
'For the great revolution of Mr Willett’s summer time had taken place since Peter Walsh’s last visit to England. The prolonged evening was new to him. It was inspiriting, rather. For as the young people went by with their despatch-boxes, awfully glad to be free, proud too, dumbly, of stepping this famous payment, joy of a kind, cheap, tinselly, if you like, but all the same rapture, flushed their faces. They dressed well too; pink stockings; pretty shoes. They would now have two hours at the pictures. It sharpened, it refined them, the yellow-blue evening light; and on the leaves in the square shone lurid, livid - they looked as if dipped in sea-water - the foliage of a submerged city.' - Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Saturday, 29 March 2014

This essential piece of our humanness

I liked what John Banville said to Claudia Winkleman on Radio 2 last night about the sentence, so I went on to iPlayer and transcribed it:

‘I work in the sentence. The sentence is the essence of our humanity. It’s our greatest invention and I love working in it. It’s a great privilege that I make some sort of a living from every day dabbling in this essential piece of our humanness. Yes, I love a good sentence. I spend a great deal of time trying to get them right.’

The history of BBC2

I have a piece on the history of BBC2, which is 50 years old next month, in the latest issue of BBC History Magazine. It's not available online but here is a brief snippet:

The BBC's Director of Television Kenneth Adam announced that the new channel called on the viewer ‘occasionally to stretch himself a little further’ and ‘to push back the horizon a little’. But according to a poll conducted in June 1964, viewers were not keen on having their horizons pushed back. Nearly half of those who had seen BBC2 thought its programmes worse than those on ITV and BBC1. Among BBC2’s regular viewers there were twice as many men as women - probably, said the polling company, ‘due only to male intellectual curiosity’.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The slaying of the ice monsters


I have a piece called ‘The slaying of the ice monsters’, on TV masts, in the latest issues of Craig Taylor’s excellent magazine Five Dials. You can view it (and all the other issues) here:

 
Mundane quote for the day: ‘A television aerial was poised from the roof, like a new kind of flag deprived of its drapery either because the color and motto were undecided or because the object of loyalty was vanished or dead or had never existed.’ Janet Frame, Scented Gardens for the Blind

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Academic kindness

There is a nice tweet doing the rounds at the moment - I can't find it so don't know who tweeted it first - that says something like: 'In academia everyone is smart. So distinguish yourself by being kind.'


A lovely thought.


And, luckily, my kindness has been rated 4* and internationally significant by internal and external reviewers.

Gumming up the works

The artist and writer Joanne Lee kindly sent me the latest offering from her own Pam Flett Press, ‘Gumming up the works’. It begins as a meditation on those blobs of chewing gum that dot across urban pavements. I learn that the common Lecanora muralis has the vernacular name ‘chewing gum lichen’ because it is ‘a dead ringer for discs of trodden gum’. And that in 2012, the French state-owned rail company SNCF ‘commissioned a huge sculpture of green gum, around which passengers had to navigate to access the entrance of Marseille railway station. It formed part of a campaign titled Il n’y a pas de petites incivilities that sought to deal with a variety of antisocial or aggressive behaviours, including the littering of gum and discarded cigarettes.’

Like its predecessors, though, Gumming Up the Works is also a series of riffs on Lee’s extensive reading from Jarvis Cocker to Carlo Ginzburg. I felt some sympathy with this little lament halfway through:

‘I fail to achieve objectivity: my projects are way too personal and autobiographical for peer-reviewed publication, but too cluttered with footnotes and academic debate to find a place in a publisher’s non-fiction lists. My investigations are deficient in a formal academic methodology and instead oscillate between a series of temporary critical alliances, chance encounters, and obsessive fandom … I easily forget the bigger picture, instead getting sidetracked in juicy digressions, fixated upon all kinds of minutiae or enjoying the jewel-like quotations I’ve mined from unpromising sources.’

In fact, what I was sent is really a companion volume of footnotes to a spoken word recording which you can listen to here:

Monday, 24 February 2014

1950s driving test

According to Anna Massey’s memoir, Telling Some Tales, it was a bit easier to pass your driving test in 1955. ‘My examiner was a nervous man who asked me if I knew that I’d driven through a red light,’ Massey writes. ‘I told him I thought it was green, and he said “Fair enough,” and passed me.’ (p. 54)

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Examined Life

I enjoyed Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, a series of case studies culled from his quarter of a century working as a psychoanalyst. They are like surreal short stories that end with insights and aphorisms, a bit like Raymond Carver crossed with Adam Phillips. In one chapter, ‘How paranoia can relieve suffering and prevent a catastrophe’, Grosz writes:

‘Paranoid fantasies are a response to the feeling that we are being treated with indifference … they protect us from a more disastrous emotional state – namely, the feeling that no one is concerned about us, that no one cares. The thought “so-and-so has betrayed me” protects us from the more painful thought “no one thinks about me” … It is less painful, it turns out, to feel betrayed than to feel forgotten … paranoid fantasies are often a response to the world’s disregard.’

For Grosz, what we need most of all – far more than limitless praise or love – is the sense of being attended to, of being noticed, listened to and worried about.

I’m writing a book about shyness, and it occurred to me after reading this that shy people might be more inclined to paranoia, because they find it harder to make an impression on the world, and are more likely to feel unnoticed, overlooked, invisible. But I don’t think I have ever suffered from paranoia. Instead, I have what seems to me to be – although I suppose I would say this, wouldn’t I? – an entirely rational sense of my own insignificance.

Friday, 14 February 2014

You are my fellow feeling

I’m not really a fan of Valentine’s Day, but it did make me think of this. In June 1948, Alan Turing and a small research team at Manchester University persuaded a stored-program computer to work for the first time. Turing became a proselytiser for artificial intelligence, believing that this ‘mechanical brain’ would one day be able to compete on equal terms with a human brain - to the extent that it would be able write sonnets as well as Shakespeare, although he conceded that the comparison was ‘a little unfair’ because a sonnet written by a machine would be better appreciated by another machine. Using the 1951 model of the Manchester computer, nicknamed the Blue Pig, Turing and his colleague Christopher Strachey created a programme (using algorithms for building sentences and synonyms for love from Roget’s Thesaurus) that could produce love letters, such as:

Darling Sweetheart
You are my fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns to your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.
Yours beautifully
M.U.C.

And:

Honey Dear
My sympathetic affection beautifully attracts your affectionate enthusiasm. You are my loving adoration: my breathless adoration. My fellow feeling breathlessly hopes for your dear eagerness. My lovesick adoration cherishes your avid ardour.
Yours wistfully
M.U.C.

M.U.C. stands for Manchester University Computer. He/she sounds like a keeper.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Customers who bought this item

I’m not sure why, but in a bored moment I went on Amazon to track all my past orders, to see if it could tell me something about what I’ve actually been doing for the last 15 years of my life. I discovered that the first book I bought on Amazon was on 25 March 1999: Cynthia Ozick’s Fame and Folly. That was back in the days when the internet was steam-powered and you had to dial it up and it tutted for a bit and then responded if it felt like it. I bought 13 items in 1999 and things carried on at that manageable pace for the next few years. As late as 2006, I only put in 11 orders. I must have still been two-timing Amazon with bookshops, an online-shopping commitment-phobe. I kidded myself that I was a recreational user, that I could kick the habit any time I wanted. But then things got out of control. I started buying birthday and Christmas presents and non-books, weird things like earplugs and hot water bottles. Perhaps the tipping point came when I bought my first big ticket item, an iPod, on 20 January 2007. There was no going back from there. Last year I put in 87 orders – and they often included multiple items. Yes, I am the reason your indie bookshop closed down. It’s my fault that low-paid workers have to walk 20 miles a day in vast warehouses to fetch my orders while computers track their every move. I claim to be angry about big companies employing vast teams of accountants to dodge corporation tax – but as it turns out, I’m not.

It’s an evocative and slightly melancholy list. By clicking through the years I can see my nephew and niece growing up: Doctor Who Sonic Screwdrivers and Harry Potter Interactive Wands give way to Nintendo Wii games and One Direction pencil cases. I can see all my brief passions and interests flame up and then fizzle out. I note that I have bought five USB sticks, as they progressively get lost or they become bent and decrepit. Every single order I put in, in some small way, was an investment in the future. I must have thought on some level that it would make me more knowledgeable, more productive, more interesting to others, happier.

That was my life in 548 orders.

Soft Estate

Last Thursday, I went to Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre to see Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts talk about their book Edgelands. I was pleased to hear they actually wrote the book together in motorway service stations – something it has in common with the Meg and Mog books, which were composed by Helen Nicoll and her illustrator, Jan Pienkowski, at Membury Services on the M4. Their talk formed part of a series of events tied up with Soft Estate, an exhibition of the work of Edward Chell and other artists who are interested in motorways, the areas around them and other types of edgeland.

Soft Estate is the Highways Agency term for the landscape around motorways and trunk roads which offers a refuge for wildlife. As long ago as the late 1960s, conservationists began to realise that the motorway verges could serve as nature reserves, particularly in the arable south where pasture was disappearing rapidly. When the M1 was finished in 1967, the conservationist Michael Way coordinated a botanical survey of the entire roadside verge between Hendon and Leeds and discovered that, just like the railways, the motorways were eco-havens. Pollen and seeds hitched a ride on car bumpers or blew along the wind tunnels created by moving traffic and roadside cuttings. In 1974 the nature writer Richard Mabey – who contributes an essay to the Soft Estate book - calculated that there were nearly half a million acres of roadside verge in Britain, an area of land bigger than the statutory nature reserves. By now the UK had joined the Common Market and prairie farming was about to grow fat on European subsidies and the Common Agricultural Policy – so more hedgerows vanished and nature again retreated to the roadside verges.

In fact, the roadside verge is really the modern equivalent of the hedgerow – although it has yet to acquire its Edmund Blunden, the poet and conservationist who in 1935 misquoted King Lear’s fool to foretell that ‘when there are no more English hedges, and the expedient of barbed wire has carried the day everywhere, “There shall the realm of Albion / Be brought to great confusion.”’ We normally think of verges as the motoring equivalent of a screensaver, an endless green sward interrupted by the occasional abandoned tyre or stray plastic bag. Yet as Mabey showed, it was part of an ‘unofficial countryside’ that was valuable almost because it was so unnoticed and unloved. The roadside was deceptively diverse, cutting through every type of landscape and geology, and including not only the grass embankments but also the balancing ponds and settling pools needed to drain the carriageway of rainwater, which often attracted wildlife. It was the dogged, unlovely nature of the roadside - from the rare fungi and algae that thrived in the drip-zone under crash barriers to the wild flowers that flourished on the poor-quality soil of the verge – that made it ecologically important.

Edward sent me a copy of the book of the exhibition and there are some beautiful-looking things in it, including his own paintings of roadside verge plants made with road dust, and some lovely oil-on-shellac-on-linen paintings of motorway service stations. I’m still hoping to get along to the exhibition, which has a couple of weeks left to run. Details are here:

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A huge metallized dream

I did this review for today’s Guardian:

Writing in the 1950s, the French cultural critic Roland Barthes argued that cars were “almost the exact equivalent of Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them purely as a magical object”. Those of us who still congregate for the Top Gear liturgy on irregular Sundays have noticed that church attendance has dwindled recently, but the car remains an object that invites worship. As well as being loaded with the symbolic baggage of money, status and sexual competitiveness, it is a pretext for grown men (and occasionally women) to engage in the unembarrassed sharing of esoteric knowledge and aesthetic delight. And yet like other religions, car worship increasingly provokes anger and resentment from non-believers. In his epic anti-car poem Autogeddon, Heathcote Williams described streets as “open sewers of the car cult”. At Reclaim the Streets events in the 1990s, protestors carried mock road signs with the slogans “Fuck The Car” and “Cars Come Too Fast”. One way or another, people get worked up about cars.

The car is thus an object ripe for cultural and historical analysis, and here are two books that attempt this in very different ways. Steven Parissien’s The Life of the Automobile is a truly global history of the motor car, from Benz to biofuels. It begins in earnest in 1891 with the French engineer Émile Levassor effectively inventing the modern automobile by moving the engine to the front and adding a front-mounted radiator, crankshaft, clutch pedal and gearstick. The book reminds us that Henry Ford created not only the mass market in automobiles but also the market in car accessories, for his Model T was so lacking in refinements that the Sears, Roebuck catalogue included over 5000 items that could be attached to it. It was Alfred P. Sloan, the President of General Motors, who introduced the notion of planned obsolescence and of gradually trading up from entry-level Chevrolet to top-of-the-range Cadillac. Parissien takes us through the golden age of the car in the 1950s and 1960s, when models like the Citroën DS, the 1959 Cadillac, the E-Type Jaguar and James Bond’s beloved Aston Martin DB5 combined beauty and functionality. Then, as the car came to be pilloried for causing congestion and pollution, the automobile industry responded by forging new markets in southern Asia and China and experimenting with alternative fuels and hybrids that mostly sought to eke out the diminishing reserves of oil. But it also responded with the single-fingered salute that is the gas-guzzling SUV, the global market for which continues to grow, unbowed by either austerity or ecopolitics.

Parissien’s is mostly a work of synthesis, culled from secondary sources, but some overarching themes present themselves. You discover how much the car relied on world wars as mothers of technological invention and opportunities for global branding. The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, for instance, established itself as the epitome of luxury in the First World War when it was used to chauffeur generals to the front, and T.E. Lawrence granted it perfect product placement in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, describing it as “more valuable than rubies”. During the Second World War, the first Volkswagen Beetles were designed with a high clearance so they could be deployed on the Russian front. Mainly an account of the car industry, Parissien’s book offers some interesting sidelights in social history. We learn that Vermont was a remote backwater until its Bureau of Publicity began marketing the state to pioneer motorists for leaf-peeping in the fall and skiing in winter, and that in 1931 Barbara Cartland organised a race for MG Midgets at Brooklands to demonstrate the skilfulness of women drivers.

Parissien’s heroes are clearly the resourceful and lateral-thinking engineers, the usually unknown artists who design these magical objects. A refreshing aspect of his book is that, while he gives the high-end models their due, he seems equally charmed by serviceable cars like Flaminio Bertoni’s Citroën 2CV, an “umbrella on four wheels” launched in 1948 for France’s still largely rural population and designed to be driven by a clog-wearing peasant across a ploughed field without breaking the eggs on the back seat. Not all the industry’s efforts at make-do-and-mend were so dependable and lovable. Parissien devotes much space to the tragic outcomes of the British Leyland assembly line, like the Morris Marina, a “skip on wheels” which arrived at showrooms with the paintwork already stippled with rust, and the Austin Allegro, whose pointlessly futuristic square steering wheel did not prevent it being nicknamed “the Flying Pig”. At least neither were as bad as the East German Trabant, made from Duroplast, an unrecyclable phenolic resin strengthened by Soviet cotton wool waste and compressed brown paper, which released noxious fumes that made its assembly-line workers ill and killed quite a few of them.

The Life of the Automobile leaves you with the sense that the car is both an extraordinarily sophisticated object – made from tens of thousands of component parts, capable of delivering its occupants long distances in extreme comfort, and now fitted with stop-start engines, voice-activated controls, automatic parking systems and radar technology to read road markings – and a surprisingly primitive one. For its basic technology, the internal combustion engine, is a nineteenth-century invention and it remains, as the Japanese say, “a third-class machine”, needing a highly-skilled human to work it properly. Parissien sees the automobile’s contradictions already encapsulated near the start of its life in the personality of Henry Ford - “daringly innovative, yet at the same time intrinsically conservative; brashly aggressive, yet apprehensive and hesitant; socially progressive, yet politically reactionary”.

Mark Wallington’s The Auto Biography is more personal and idiosyncratic, his idea being to tell the story of the last 60 years of British motoring through his own encounters with cars. The book begins in 1953 with his father’s purchase of a Ford Popular, a “biscuit tin on wheels” which can only run to a single windscreen wiper, to bring his son back from the maternity ward. Wallington’s narrative arc runs from the excitements of the early motorway age to the disenchantments of the present, symbolised by his father turning road protestor when a bypass is built at the back of his house. The book ends bathetically with the author’s purchase of a charcoal-grey Ford Focus, “a car that specializes in not being noticed”, although “perhaps it’s got a little more grey over the last two years”.

This convivial book is hard to dislike and there are some nice vignettes. Wallington’s father, who plans journeys along the virgin motorways of the 1950s and 1960s with the same meticulousness he brought to his role as an RAF navigator in the war, warms his car’s spark plugs in the oven on winter mornings, so that breakfast smells are “offset by the piquant aroma of engine oil”. In her first trip on the M6, his mother buys a postcard of it at a service station to send to her hairdresser. During the suffocating summer of 1976, as long queues of hitchhikers form at Staples Corner at the foot of the M1, the asphalt melts and “you could peel it off the side of the roads”.

But as these details suggest, this book does not veer wildly from the main routes, presenting us with a series of stock figures from Tufty the road safety squirrel to Swampy the tunnelling road protestor. It has that slight air of condescension you sometimes find in popular histories of the recent past, in which our immediate ancestors are seen as naïve or quaint for getting excited about phenomena like the motorway service station or the Gravelly Hill Interchange that, from our more knowing and enlightened present, are revealed as quite mundane.

Like modern cars, both these books rumble along nicely but seem largely cocooned in their own comforting microenvironment, cut off from the world beyond the dashboard. Neither of them seem much concerned with what the excitements, passions and anxieties generated by the car tell us about ourselves or the society we have become. The car still awaits a social and cultural history that would explore how this miraculous and mundane object, what J.G. Ballard called this “huge metallized dream”, has come to penetrate so deeply into the routines and reveries of our waking lives.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The isle of sorrow

After writing that post about ice skating, I came across this idea of the ice-rink as the quintessence of existential pointlessness in Tove Jansson’s just-reissued Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir:

‘I know what it is that’s the worst thing of all. It’s the skating-rink. I have a six-sided skating badge sewn to my jumper. The key I use to tighten my skates is on a shoelace round my neck. When you go down onto the ice, the skating-rink looks like a little bracelet of light far out in the darkness … Hundreds of shadowy figures skate round and round, all in the same direction, resolutely and pointlessly, and two freezing old men sit playing in the middle under a tarpaulin … Everybody just skates faster, strange shadows making scrunching and squeaking noises as they pass … The skating rink was the isle of sorrow.’

And here is some more material for that history of student life I’m never going to write. I found this in Siegfried Sassoon’s The Old Century and Seven More Years, the first part of his autobiography, in which he describes his abortive encounter with the Law Tripos at Cambridge University in the early 1900s:

‘Dutifully I attended droning lectures, desperately scribbling fragments of what I overheard and seldom understanding what my notes were about when I perused them in private. Note-taking seemed to be physical rather than mental exercise … Toiling at my text-books, I discovered again and again that I had turned over two pages at once without noticing anything wrong.’

Saturday, 4 January 2014

A daily miracle

I heard a bit of Arnold Bennett’s ‘How to Live on 24 Hours a Day’ on Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ and it seemed appropriate for the start of the year and for a blog which is, among other things, about the everyday. So I dug it out:

‘The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say:—“This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

I said the affair was a miracle. Is it not?’

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Too many words

As another year ends, I note that I have once again managed to post less on this blog than last year. At this rate I am on course to achieve complete radio silence by 2017.

Perhaps this is no bad thing. One of the many salutary bits of advice in William Strunk and E.B. White's classic book The Elements of Style is that no writer should offer their opinions 'gratuitously' because to do so is 'to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case'. In fact, it almost certainly isn't the case. But sometimes, in the blog- and tweet- and comment-osphere, it can feel like everyone is shouting over each other to no one in particular, convinced that the demand for their opinions is, all evidence to the contrary, brisk.

Meanwhile all the books I am supposed to read lie in a big pile on the sofa, some of which have even been sent to me in the hope I will read them: a guilt mountain of paper and print. So my new year's resolution is to spend a bit less time writing and a bit more time reading. Reading other people's unread words seems a more generous act than adding yet more to the unread pile. Perhaps there are already too many words in the world.

I'm not sure whether I will be able to keep my resolution. It seems to be an occupational disease of writers to keep churning the words out whether the market for them is brisk or not. As Juvenal writes in his Satires: 'Tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes', or 'the incurable itch to write affects many'. But I will do my best. Happy new year if you are reading this, and Lege feliciter, as the Venerable Bede said: 'May you read happily'.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Des O'Connor in a Santa hat

I did this piece about Christmas TV for last week's New Statesman.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, kitsch Christmas television seemed as timeless a tradition as wassailing. But it seems I was part of the first generation to be so blessed. Browsing the TV listings for Christmas 1963, 50 years ago, I am amazed how unfestive they look. Alongside a few familiar staples like Billy Smart’s Circus and Christmas Night with the Stars, there are run-of-the-mill episodes of Z Cars, University Challenge and Emergency – Ward 10. On Christmas Eve, ITV did not even bother to start until mid-afternoon, and by Boxing Day the schedules were almost back to normal.

Then, in 1969, a miraculous birth brought joy to the world: the first Christmas double issues of the Radio Times and the TV Times. Their separate covers – the Radio Times a tasteful montage of ribbons, wintry scenes and carol singers, the TV Times Des O’Connor in a Santa hat – seemed to encapsulate the cultural differences between the BBC and ITV. But they each inaugurated an era of three-channel colour TV in which every sitcom or quiz show would have its own Christmas special and the cathode-ray tube would fizz with fake snow and winter woollies for a fortnight.

The moment from this halcyon era that has entered folk memory is 8.55pm on the evening of 25 December 1977, when 28.5 million people are alleged to have arranged themselves in front of a TV to watch The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show - and this despite the fact that theirs was always the least Christmassy show in the schedules, with barely a slither of tinsel in sight. What no one now remembers is that ITV’s Christmas programmes in 1977 were so unappetising that, when the schedules had been announced a few weeks earlier, several advertising agencies complained that they would have no audience for their commercials. On Christmas night, ITV showed Sale of the Century, Stars on Christmas Day (a special edition of Stars on Sunday with ITV personalities singing carols) and the film Young Winston. To have detained half the nation for an hour and ten minutes with this on the other side was not, perhaps, such a historic achievement.

It was, in fact, a recurring motif throughout the 1970s that Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas show was not as good as last year’s. The 1977 show was not one of their best. Starting with a lame skit on “Starkers and Krutch,” it finished not with that triumphant “There is nothing like a dame” number from South Pacific, but an oddly flat scene with Elton John playing piano in an empty studio while Eric and Ernie, dressed in drag as cleaners, looked on. Les Dawson, interviewed by the Daily Express a few days later, felt that “the ending didn’t quite come off”. The DJ John Peel found them “extravagantly unfunny” and thought “their best work in several years was the current television commercial for Texaco”.

But even if Morecambe and Wise were never as funny as they used to be, it is touching to learn how much neurotic care went into their Christmas shows. Their writer, Eddie Braben, took five weeks to write each one, working 16 hour days including weekends, driving himself close to a breakdown. Morecambe was such a perfectionist that, when he watched the show with his family on Christmas night, he would cough strategically to distract them from any slight fluffs left in the edit.

It is customary to mourn the lost capacity of TV to create these shared moments that seem to matter so much to both performer and audience. Christmas TV, meant to be watched ritualistically en famille, especially inspires such lamentations. The announcement of the BBC’s Christmas schedules this year produced the usual complaints about its falling back on tired formats like Open All Hours and Strictly Come Dancing. But as the recent Channel 4 series Gogglebox suggested, many viewers still turn on the set in search of familiar rituals they can enjoy together. Despite all those predictions at the start of the digital era about the imminent demise of “linear viewing,” we are not all deserting the living-room set to watch Netflix on our iPads.  

The media historians Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz once compared the mass viewing of television to the seder, the Jewish ritual marking the start of Passover. Jews celebrate the seder in their own homes with their extended family, and yet these millions of synchronised, homebound microevents assume the existence of a symbolic centre, a sense that the Jewish diaspora is celebrating together at the same time. Dayan and Katz saw television, at its great collective moments, as a similar kind of “festive viewing,” a powerful social chemistry bonding society together.

You might think this too heavy a responsibility for the Christmas Day edition of Mrs Brown’s Boys to bear. But TV’s defining quality remains that it can be viewed by lots of people simultaneously. And since it is an undemanding form of togetherness that asks little of those who sign up to it other than that they are all watching Doctor Who or Downton Abbey, it can create a sense of commonality among people who have little else in common. This attachment to the communal nature of watching TV has survived a post-Thatcherite market logic which prefers to see us as individual, rational consumers. In fact, I have a vision of the diasporic television community of fifty years hence, assembled in twenty million living rooms from Lerwick to St Helier. Everyone is flicking through the Christmas edition of the Radio Times, with its time-honoured small-display ads for walk-in baths and garden sheds at the back, looking for something familiar to watch.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Skating away

In her book Skating to Antarctica, Jenny Diski writes:

'My feet haven't retained the memory of skating, but then it isn't a natural experience for feet to be constrained in an unbending boot from sole to ankle and raised on a quarter inch of steel blade so that they never actually touch the ground. Feet don't skate, but they experience skating. You sense the solidity of the ice through the blade in a way that is quite different from being on any other hard surface. Concrete doesn't feel as ungiving and absolute as ice. You slide over its surface, but there is no engaging with it, no sense, as you get even with concrete, certainly with rock and paving stones, of surface texture, of tiny undulations, of there being earth beneath. Rink ice is a solid block, whose depth you sense as you slick across its surface, as a swimmer senses the fathoms beneath them buoying them up. But the sea moves, engages with the body of the swimmer, while the ice is enigmatic, separate from the skater.

And yet, to skate is magical, as you find yourself coasting free and frictionless. The clear distinction between yourself and the ice you are on strengthens the sensation of your own body and its capacity both for control and for letting appropriate things happen. And for all the perception of physical mastery, skating is still strange and dreamlike. Dreams of flying are the nearest you get to the feeling of being on the ice.' (pp. 15-16)

Nowadays every British town and city seems to have at least one open-air ice rink at Christmas time. With the addition of fairy lights, and in a spectacular location like the Brighton Pavilion or Winchester Cathedral, these can be quite magical, although the ice rink in Liverpool One is a pretty unenchanted affair.

The town-centre Christmas ice rink seems to have entirely replaced the phenomenon of wild skating. According to Sue Clifford and Angela King, in their wonderful book England in Particular, it was common until recently to skate on the lakes and tarns of the Lake District. In his Guardian Country Diary, A. Harry Griffin described how in 1929 the railways ran excursions from London and other cities to the 'Lakeland ice carnival', where 'there seemed as many people on and around the "toe" of Windermere as on a busy summer's day in Blackpool'. In one memorable edition of the ITV regional programme About Anglia in January 1963, in the coldest winter of the century, the presenter Eric Joice presented the programme from Wroxham Broad in Norfolk, sitting at a desk perched on the frozen water while reporters skated round him under the arc lights. But Clifford and King report that 'since the 1950s land drainage schemes have meant that many of the safe places for skating – flood meadows – are no longer available'.

I like the idea of skating, but I won't be doing any of it this Christmas, as the only time I have tried it felt as unnatural an experience as Diski describes it, and I never got to the coasting free and frictionless stage because I kept being stuck in the falling over stage. But like Joni Mitchell, I sometimes wish I had a river I could skate away on.

Anyway, a Merry Christmas to anyone who reads this blog, whether you have a river to skate away on or not.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

A history of student life

Nina Stibbe’s new book, Love, Nina, is made up of a series of letters she began to write to her sister Vic when she moved to London as a 20-year-old in 1982 to work as a live-in nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers (editor of the London Review of Books) on Gloucester Crescent in Camden. Halfway through the book, Stibbe begins an English course at Thames Polytechnic. There is some interesting stuff about what it’s like to be an English undergradute in the 1980s, and it made me think that there has never been (to my knowledge) a history of student life. What time they got up, what they ate and drank, what conversations they had in the Students’ Union, what they did in lectures and seminars, how they revised for exams: most of this experience has not been written down and will be lost except to an enterprising oral historian who might want to get a move on while the baby boomers who swelled the student ranks after the Robbins report can still remember that far back. I offer up this idea for free to any passing historian because I no longer have the energy to do that sort of thing myself.

This is Stibbe’s description of a seminar c. 1984:

‘You must contribute (intelligently) to the discussion, otherwise it looks as though you haven’t read the text(s). The academic might say, “Who’s actually read this?” and “What’s the point of coming?” to those who haven’t. Sometimes people who haven’t read the text are told they may as well leave the seminar and that’s the ultimate shame.’

Needless to say, this particular aspect of the student experience is no longer part of the £9K offer.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The happy bubble of television

It’s a shame Morrissey’s autobiography came out after Armchair Nation because there is quite a lot in it about young Morrissey the TV watcher. He has an infallible memory for long-forgotten shows from the 1960s like Torchy the Battery Boy, The Time Tunnel, Champion the Wonder Horse, Mr Pastry’s Pet Shop and Fireball XL5. And he has a nice turn of phrase. In Miss World, ‘all of England places their bets on the beauty of young women whose full human potential is limited to one frozen expression’. And this is him on what television, in an age before videotape, meant to his youthful self:

‘The happy bubble of television shows me the earth and its fragile moments of fantasy, and I, with all the petulance of the pipe dream, am allowed to engage … Television is the only place where we banish ourselves from the community of the living, and where the superficial provides more virtue than the actual. We watch in order to find ecstasy, for at last we can survive in someone else. Our conclusions are our own, yet the landscape is infinite … Television flickers and fleets, and must be watched closely lest what you see is never seen again. Whatever you see you will never forget.’

Saturday, 2 November 2013

A lecture on the lecture

I bet you any money that, 300,000 years ago on the plains of the African savanna, one of our ancestors turned to another one and said: ‘You know what, it’s just not been the same since we discovered fire. I wish we could go back to the good old days of eating raw meat and being freezing all the time.’

You see, nostalgia is an omnivorous and universal human urge. The belief that things are not as good as they used to be seems to be hard-wired into our brains. Not mine, though. I like progress: email, texting, Powerpoint, all that stuff. It only bothers me when people think these things can somehow substitute for human contact and connection.
 
The Institute for Public Policy Research’s recent report on the future of universities, An Avalanche is Coming, argued that ‘when lectures can now so easily and cheaply be recorded and downloaded, the value of the live performance becomes more questionable still. Students recognise this and the result is the proliferation of viral videos that challenge the status of the lecture.’ This is a view increasingly held within universities, with moves towards podcasting and video ‘capture’ of lectures. Nowadays lecture theatres are so arranged that the lecture console is at the side and it won’t get in the way of the data projector. The Powerpoint presentation is thus supposed to be the main attraction and the lecturer is like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a desk working all the levers and buttons. Perhaps in the future we will be replaced by those audioanimatronic figures they have at Disney World.

It’s odd, because my experience is that students actually quite like having a living, breathing, talking human being in front of them. And beyond universities, the rise of literary festivals and the global TED movement suggests that people will still turn up and pay to hear someone speak. Why on earth would they do this when they could just download the ‘content’ – one of the abstract nouns of our times - on to their tablets? Perhaps because we are social animals, and not just rational-choice consumers?

The best lectures are are not simply reducible to downloadable digital ‘content’, because they are always partly improvised and thus exist only in the moment - although few would go as far as Wittgenstein, who did no preparation at all and said ‘that once he had tried to lecture from notes but was disgusted with the result; the thoughts that came out were “stale,” or, as he put it to another friend, the words looked like “corpses” when he began to read them.’ (David Leavitt, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer, p. 146)

The best lectures are also full of what the Elizabethans called ‘lively turning’ – strange juxtapositions, leaps of thought, rhetorical tricks, jokes and the element of surprise. Of course, this is inseparable from risk. You might be ensorcelled by the lecturer’s weaving together of words – or you might be a bit bored. The touching thing is how polite audiences are in lectures, even if they are uninterested. ‘Never, at a literary event,’ Clive James once wrote, ‘have I ever seen even one person rise from the audience and say, “This is too boring to bear.’” Audience members very rarely walk out, and they even try to refrain from openly yawning, or looking at their watches too brazenly. It’s quite sweet, really, this collective agreement to sit still and behave as if all this really matters.

I suspect some of us will carry on lecturing to an empty room, even when we have been told that our lame jokes and bullet points are being downloaded directly from our brains on to mobile devices. Margaret Drabble once gave a lecture in which she told a sad story about Angus Wilson who, when old and in poor health, would sometimes rise from his bed at night with a start and hurriedly collect a pile of papers, saying he had to ‘go to give a lecture’. His partner Tony Garrett would eventually reassure him that there was no lecture to be given, and he would be persuaded to go back to sleep.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

So much confetti

‘If God were as poetic as Whistler once wished,’ Alistair Cooke wrote, ‘and if He had devised a solar system that lighted parts of the globe only at the seasons that showed His best handiwork, the rest of the world would be dark in October while New England enjoyed its hour, just as England would light up for the few magic weeks in late March and early April for its incomparable spring.’ The New England fall and the English spring were, according to Cooke, ‘the unique earthly expression of two moods of the human spirit’. Maybe, but English autumns aren’t too shifty either – not in the Champions League like New England, perhaps, but definitely vying for a UEFA cup place.

The American literature professor Jay Parini has written that academic life is renewed with the fall of autumn leaves, ‘shredding the previous year's failures and tossing them out of the window like so much confetti’. These days it isn’t quite true, because our semesters begin well before the sunlight fades and the leaves begin to lose their chlorophyll.

But now the garden at the back of our building is a shrivelled wet blanket of yellow and brown, and thankfully no one seems to be in a hurry to sweep it away. Nowadays, falling leaves tend to be seen as a mere nuisance, from those ‘leaves on the line’ that harass the modern rail commuter to the back-garden tree litter that is supposed to be swept away by those new high-powered leaf blowers.

This is surely part of a more general recoil from the tangible and the real. According to a survey from the Woodland Trust this summer, eight out of ten people in Britain are now unable to identify an ash leaf, and only half can recognise the nation’s most celebrated tree, the oak.

We should reacquaint ourselves with falling leaves, and the sweet little melancholy annual death that is autumn. And by ‘we’, I really mean ‘me’. ‘Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?’ as Thoreau writes in Walden. ‘Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?’

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Skegness student experience

One of the phrases you hear all the time in universities nowadays is ‘the student experience’. It’s an incantation only rivalled in ubiquity by the ‘£9K offer’ – which puts me in mind of nothing so much as those cashiers at railway station newsagents who, when you are buying a newspaper or magazine, also try to interest you in a bumper pack of Maltesers, a giant Yorkie bar or a ‘meal deal’. The literary theorist Thomas Docherty has this to say about the former phrase:

‘The story of “the student experience” begins not in the cloisters of Oxbridge, nor on the leafy campus of Sussex or Keele. It begins, in fact, in the period of a certain kind of scarcity of resources in the lead up, during and after the Second World War; and it can be said properly  to begin in a relatively small seaside resort town on the east coast of England: Skegness. Skegness is where Billy Butlin opened his first holiday camp, with a novel kind of business model. The idea … was one where you paid an initial global sum as an entry-price to the attractions, and then got access to an entire raft, or a “suite” as it is now called in business jargon, of facilities. The model was one where, by paying a fee upfront, you were entitled to what would ostensibly look like “free” access to all the facilities.’ – Thomas Docherty, For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), p. 58.

Maybe I should buy a red coat and start practising my jazz hands.

‘It’s all very well sneering at universities, and students with those awful scarves and flat-heeled shoes, but really and truly, it would be wonderful to have a bit of kosher education: I mean, to know what’s up there in the sky: just up above you, like the blue over the umbrella, and find out whatever’s phoney about our culture, and anything in it that may be glorious and real.’ – Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners (1959)

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Broadcasting House

I was on Loose Ends on Radio 4 yesterday evening. If anyone fancies a listen it is here:

 
Loose Ends comes from Broadcasting House in Portland Place. The old bit of the building looks a bit like an ocean liner on the point of setting sail, like the Chartered Accountancy building at the start of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. How I have wished, on the three occasions I have been there, that it would sail away down Upper Regent Street and save me from the torture of having to be interviewed on the radio.

As you are taken into the studio, you wonder fleetingly whether this might be the same room in which a BBC announcer told the nation in hushed tones that ‘the King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close’, or perhaps where General de Gaulle, just before his famous broadcast of 18 June 1940, was asked by the engineer to say something to check the sound level, and responded in a booming voice, ‘La France!’. Of course, it is just as likely to be the place where Dave Lee Travis patented his famous ‘quack quack oops’ sound effect.

After the broadcast, you are taken downstairs and have time to glance at the Eric Gill statue, ‘The Sower’, in the Art Deco reception. The metaphor adheres to the literal sense of the word ‘broadcast’, which radio borrowed from the farmer’s term for scattering seeds over a wide surface. As the sower casts seed, so does broadcasting cast its carrier waves over the land to anyone who wants to hear them. And so, as you are decanted on to a busy and unbothered London street, you wonder if anyone in the wide world was listening.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Gratuitous erudition

I have quite a long piece in this week’s Radio Times about the history of the magazine (it’s the 90th anniversary issue). On 10 September 1923 John Reith, the BBC’s general manager, wrote in his diary: ‘Everything is now in shape for a BBC magazine, and from various alternatives I chose Radio Times for the title.’ On the front cover of its first issue, Arthur Burrows, the BBC’s Director of Programmes, wrote in brisk, not very Reithian style: ‘HULLO EVERYONE! We will now give you the Radio Times. The good new times. The Bradshaw of Broadcasting. May you never be late for your wave-train. Speed 186,000 miles per second; five-hour non-stops. Family season ticket: First Class, 10s. per year.’ The new magazine, in which the word ‘listeners’ was enclosed throughout in inverted commas, arrived in newsagents on Friday 28 September 1923. It soon had an army of subscribers, the magazine being mailed out to them each week from its Addressing Department by Great War veterans with facial disfigurements – employed especially by Reith, a scarred veteran himself.

For the novelist Anthony Burgess, then a schoolboy called John Wilson living with his parents above a tobacconist’s shop in a poor area of Moss Side, Manchester, the Radio Times offered an entry point to another world. It was, he recalled, ‘a substantial publication like a weekly Blast, only better printed, and all for twopence. Its tone was intellectual, its artwork highly contemporary; it abounded with gratuitous erudition.’ Burgess had built his own crystal radio set to hear Adrian Boult’s BBC Symphony Orchestra, and he relied on the magazine to tell him when they were on.

But in his diary for 7 September 1963 the now 74-year-old Lord Reith complained: ‘The vulgarity of the Radio Times week by week makes me sorry I ever started it.’

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Armchair Nation again

Please excuse the self-promotion but, partly for my own purposes, I thought I would collate some of the reviews for Armchair Nation here.

 
Brief review in the FT - http://on.ft.com/14sSa5c


Article inspired by the book in the Daily Mail http://dailym.ai/17NirLT

Review in the Independent http://ind.pn/13XCeYo

Roger Lewis review in the Mail http://dailym.ai/14P4SYU

Craig Brown in the Mail on Sunday http://dailym.ai/17EPfr3


Simon Hoggart in the Literary Review http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/hoggart_09_13.php

Review in the Telegraph http://fw.to/G3IRbcL


Review in the Observer: http://gu.com/p/3t9a4/tw

Review in the Sunday Times: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/culture/books/non_fiction/article1302910.ece

I should be on Lauren Laverne’s show on 6Music tomorrow (Monday) after 12pm, if anyone fancies tuning in …

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The power of the painted face

I did a piece on the painted portait for last week's Guardian:
 
Oliver Cromwell famously said that he wanted his portrait to include “all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me”. Nowadays we have little choice in the matter. We live in an era in which our photographic likenesses circulate ever more freely in the form of webcam images, profile pictures and mobile phone snapshots, and they cannot all be flattering.

You would think that, in this era of instantly available avatars of ourselves, something as analogue as a painted portrait would have little purchase. But all this week, viewers on The One Show are voting on which public figure should be the subject of a “People’s Portrait” in the National Portrait Gallery. And last week there was much interest in the artist Grahame Hurd-Wood, who aims to paint a portrait of every person in his home city of St Davids. He thinks it will take him at least another five years to reproduce all 1800 residents – a task that could be done with a camera in a day.

The painted portrait has outlived most of its original purposes. Before photography, it was the main way of preserving someone’s image beyond their own lifetime. It was also largely the preserve of the rich and well-connected, a way of announcing wealth, status and ancestral lineage. None of these advantages applies in the new age of the “selfie”, the self-portrait taken with front-facing phone camera.

But a painted portrait can still be extraordinarily compelling. For it can show us that we are not, as Shakespeare wrote and most of us think we are, the lords and owners of our faces. Before allowing ourselves to be photographed, we subconsciously flinch and arrange our features in such a way as to give a poor sense of how we usually look. The artist Graham Sutherland once said that “only those totally without physical vanity, educated in painting, or with exceptionally good manners, can disguise their feelings of shock or even revulsion when they are confronted for the first time with a reasonably truthful painted image of themselves”. Anyone who has been horrified at encountering their glum, ill-prepared countenance unexpectedly in a shop window will know what he means.

Just as a selfie is only one version of the self – for most people do not view us completely face-on, grinning inanely, at arm’s length – a painted portrait is a reinvention of another person. Many portrait painters make the head bigger than it really is, because it is what we notice first in others. The eyes may be enlarged for the same reason, while the ears, which most of us barely register unless they are especially protuberant, are usually an afterthought. A portrait painter is trying to capture a person’s ineffable essence rather than a mirror image. As Picasso said of his portrait of Gertrude Stein, “everybody says that she does not look like it, but that does not make any difference. She will.”

No one, after all, has just one face; it changes constantly according to such variables as angle of view, mood, lighting and the ageing process. Compared to those of other species, human faces are very different from each other, and, since we have more separate muscles in our faces than any other animal, uniquely expressive. And yet every human face, for all that it is as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint, also seems fundamentally familiar. In old paintings, it is always the face – rather than the historically distancing aspects of hairstyle, costume and decor - which conveys the sense that the person portrayed is someone recognisable who could step out of the painting into the present.

I still recall my shock at first seeing the face of Tollund Man, the mummified body discovered in a Danish peat bog in 1950 - a mild, unremarkable face you might just as easily have come across attached to a stranger on the bus. The selfie has become ubiquitous not because we live in an unusually narcissistic age, but because we first connect with other human beings through their faces. And that is also why a painted portrait has the power to move us still.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

You have been warned

British Library Publishing sent me a copy of a book they have just republished. You Have Been Warned! A Complete Guide to Road was first published in 1935, co-authored by the British Punch cartoonist Fougasse (real name Kenneth Bird, now best known for those wartime ‘Careless talk costs lives’ posters) and Donald McCullough (later to become the avuncular chairman of the BBC’s Brains Trust). A runaway bestseller, it was a comic anthropology of the eccentric behaviour of road users. Fougasse’s cartoon of a driver stretching out his right arm, for instance, was translated as ‘I am going to turn to my right,’ ‘I am going to shake the ash off my cigarette,’ and ‘the house over there with the green door is where our cook’s mother lives’. A wonderfully vague hand signal was translated as ‘‘I am going to TURN to the LEFT or the RIGHT or SLOW down or SKID or STOP or maybe DASH across and ask the WAY from the policeman on POINT duty.’

The book had a semi-official sanction, being published with funds from the National Safety First Association. Scarier safety propaganda was regarded as rather shouty and unEnglish, the kind of in-your-face activity with which the Nazis, who pioneered the national road safety campaign, were associated. Propaganda that focused on the potential for accidents, advised one psychologist, would ‘only produce a dangerous fear in the nervous and timid and would be no deterrent to the exhibitionist’. You Have Been Warned called the new Highway Code ‘the Road-User’s Statute of Liberty and Magna Carta of the Road’.

For a book published nearly 80 years ago, the humour stands up very well – as well, I would say, as another humour classic from the 1930s: Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That.