Sunday, 24 July 2011

Lighthouse

I’ve recently been introduced to the work of a brilliant writer and oral historian, the late Tony Parker. His best known work is probably The People of Providence, about the inhabitants of a London slab and tower block housing estate in the early eighties. But my favourite book of his is Lighthouse, about the Trinity House lighthouse keepers, partly because when I was quite small I briefly harboured an ambition to be one. (It’s a good job I never acted on it; most of the lighthouses are now automatic.) The first thing you learn is that lighthouse keepers never use the word ‘lighthouse’. They say ‘lights’ and divide them into three types: land lights, which are on the mainland with living quarters nearby, rock lights and tower lights. Tower lights are the most isolated and the most dreaded, without even a bit of rock to walk around on and get away from your fellow keepers for a bit.

Lighthouse keeping is a somewhat melancholy profession, partly because promotion is not on merit – it is difficult to outshine your colleagues in job performance, after all - but on vacancies or ‘dead men’s shoes’. There is little to do on a light except linger over meals and make ships in bottles.

The lighthouse keepers are often articulate about their strange, lonely lives:

‘Somehow you’re the only person left in the world, everyone else has disappeared; there aren’t any other people anywhere, no one else alive but you … Sitting on your own looking out of a lighthouse window; it’s a funny sort of existence.’

‘The first day or two on land it hurt you to walk even half a mile on the flat; it was like someone had been kicking at the back of your knees, because all your leg muscles was used to was going up and down the stairs.’

‘Sometimes when I was on middle watch in the middle of the night I used to switch on the radio transmitter and sit and listen to ships talking to one another, just so I could hear the sound of people’s voices.’

There is also a cautionary tale for authors. Parker asked one keeper, Barry, what he thought of a Margaret Drabble novel he was reading: ‘He struggled, opened the sitting room window and threw it out into the sea.’

Now that is what I call a bad review.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The name badge people

At this time of year, as the students migrate during the dry season, our little patch of Liverpudlian savannah is invaded by a tribe I call ‘the name badge people’. If one were drawing up what zoologists call an ethogram, a careful list of every type of action an animal makes, one would immediately note that they all wear name badges on their chests and that their other distinguishing traits are a craning of the neck and puzzled look as they search for the toilets.

They have come for a conference. Across the world, the planning and hosting of conferences has become a lucrative branch of corporate hospitality, and universities have muscled in on this business, with mints, biscuits, notepads and pens laid on like tea-making facilities in hotel rooms. I wonder if the market in easel pads and flip charts is seasonal to accommodate these yearly arrivals.

Interestingly, the name badge people generally gather together in a group size no bigger than that of a traditional tribe. In the mid-1990s, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar developed a much-discussed theory of gossip. Beginning with the observation that monkeys groom each other to consolidate alliances and hierarchies, Dunbar argued that gossip evolved as a sort of ‘vocal grooming,’ suitable for the larger groups, say 150 people, in which humans live. Perhaps the conference as social practice is also a form of vocal grooming.

In Alan Bennett’s 1988 documentary Dinner at Noon, in which he stays at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate, he encounters several of these away days and conferences. ‘Oddly touching I find these middle aged schoolboys,’ he says in the voiceover, ‘still wanting to learn, still convinced they can do it better, wives left at home who they’ll go up and phone later, to tell them how well their group did in the test.’ And in his memoir The Gatekeeper, Terry Eagleton writes, perhaps less generously: ‘Conferences are liturgical celebrations, affirmations of solidarity, symbolic spaces for those who speak a language (whether of socialism or orthodontics) unintelligible to most of their fellow-humans, and who therefore need from time to time to relax with those of their kind, as a cross-dresser might feel the gathering urge to withdraw from the world of the bank or bakery and ease into a pair of corsets.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘There is an innocence, an unworldliness about most sociological writing which can be its greatest charm. With the possible exception of public relations, I can think of no field of cultural activity in which the expert seems to start off with so much less information than the ordinary citizen. This island is now full of voices announcing with an air of discovery that people do football pools and watch television and go dancing … The result of these gestures torwards objectivity is often that he begins to sound like a Martian – dazed by so much novelty, moving on from one topic to the next just when he seems about to say something that might interest a human being.’ - Kingsley Amis, ‘Martians bearing bursaries’, 1962

Sunday, 17 July 2011

We the undersigned

One of the proliferating phenomena of our times is the online petition. If Mass Observation were still around today, no doubt it would be examining these calls to arms in its attempt to draw up what it once called ‘weather maps of public feeling’. On the other hand, the ease with which these petitions can be raised, seconded and signed should perhaps caution us against reading into them a definitive articulation of the popular psyche. The following are examples of rejected petitions on the No 10 website.

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to …

Instruct the relevant Minister to block the Halifax television adverts

GET A PRIMARK IN BLETCHLEY

Allow Colette Newton to remain on our table at work and not be moved to GN

Please stop the redistribution of the Yellow Pages

Promote potatos as a super carb

Facilitate the BBC in gaining legal permission to allow people to listen again to Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4’s website

Persuade Graham Coxon to rejoin Blur

Stop Neil Bamford from growing his hair any longer

Change ‘Holloway Road’ of North London to ‘Chuck Norris Road’

Make it illegal to pick your nose in public

Fight for British Milk!

Force William Gilbert to sell his Land Rovers or stop going on about them

Show support for the British home improvements industry by repainting the door of 10 Downing Street in a new colour every spring

Make cheese available free of charge

Offer a Knighthood to Mr. Gareth Hesketh

Wear a straw boater during Prime Minister’s Questions

Bring Back Discovery Mexican Sauce

Boil RMT Leader Bob Crow down for soap, in order that he may be of use to someone

Encourage Andrew’s Dad to grow back his moustache

Have a Neighbours omnibus on Sundays for all to enjoy

Do something about Bonsai kittens

Read the book ‘Shrub’

Supply the visually impaired with Guide Badgers

Thursday, 14 July 2011

On my to-do list

There is a nice line in Shrek: The Musical (no of course I haven’t been to see it; I read a review): Princess Fiona asks Shrek if he has killed the fire-breathing dragon yet and he replies evasively, ‘It’s on my to-do list’. I wonder when this phrase achieved currency? According to David Shields’s book Reality Hunger, the earliest forms of writing were lists. Plutarch sometimes arranged his essays into what we would today call ‘bullet points’ – the origin of which term comes, I think, from the US army, who were one of the first users of the overhead projector.

However, the to-do list must be of recent vintage, a way of giving a comforting sense of order and an illusion of completedness to our quotidian routines. In an essay, ‘Programming and play’, in Johnnie Gratton and Michael Sheringham’s edited book, The Art of the Project, Dominique Rabaté muses on ‘this obsessional trait, this tendency to transform what has to be done into an injunction addressed to oneself’. She suggests that it is ‘a minimal device whereby we work to allay our anxiety over the future, considered as time waiting to be filled. But what a pleasure it can be when, finally, you can draw a line through one of your listed items.’

A word of warning: anyone who fobs you off with the words ‘it’s on my to-do list’ is, in my experience, an incorrigible timewaster and/or bullshitter.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘All this technology around – and yet they can’t get the perforations to match in two-ply toilet paper.’ – D.J. Enright

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Twilight of the tea trolley

This piece by me was in Saturday's Guardian.

Here is something to make you wonder where the years went. The first episode of the BBC sitcom, The Office, went out ten years ago, on 9 July 2001. Screened on a midsummer Monday evening and sandwiched between repeats of The Fast Show and Have I Got Old News for You, it was launched with no great fanfare and attracted just 1.4m viewers in each of its first three weeks. As Ben Walters points out in his British Film Institute book about the sitcom, only one other new BBC2 programme scored lower in that year’s Audience Appreciation index: women’s bowls. The Office was a takeoff of the then ubiquitous formula of the docusoap and many viewers did not realise it was a comedy. The soon-to-be BBC Chairman, Gavyn Davies, was an immediate fan but his wife, Sue Nye, who ran the office of the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, initially thought it was a documentary.

Nowadays, of course, that downbeat, understated style is the industry standard and the “fourth wall” sitcom, performed in front of a live audience like a play on a proscenium stage, seems painfully old fashioned, except when it is being affectionately pastiched, such as in Miranda. But in 2001 people needed to be taught that The Office was funny. “We are living in a new golden age, but this time it is the golden age of a much colder, cynical and more cliqueish kind of entertainment,” wrote Graham McCann, the biographer of Morecambe and Wise, in the Financial Times. “For every viewer who savours each awkwardly tender exchange between Tim and Dawn, and laughs aloud at the sheer awfulness of David Brent, there are several more who shake their heads and protest: ‘I don’t get it.’” We used to laugh at sitcom characters on the understanding that nothing really awful would happen to them. The Office tricked viewers into letting down their guard, and laughing at characters who turned out to be rather vulnerable and tragic. That was something new.

In televisual terms, then, 2001 is a long time ago; in the real world of the office, though, nothing much has changed. Although the computers look a bit ancient, that open-plan office in Slough still looks eerily familiar. And that is what The Office was partly about: the gap between the managerialist rhetoric of modernisation and change, in which employees had to sit through suffocatingly well-meaning “training days” and identify “strategic goals” in their annual appraisals, and the mundane reality of typing away at a workstation in an anonymous out of town office park and then suddenly noticing that ten years have gone by.

In fact, I seem to remember that it was about a decade ago that we were all being told that new technology was turning the idea of being chained to our desks from nine to five into an anachronism. Adverts for laptops and 3G phones all suggested that we could avoid the daily grind by being mobile and remotely accessible. The office has long attracted these valedictories. In his non-fiction book, The Office, published in 1970, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy wrote that it was “a large squat nanny, waiting comfortably there to gently fuss me with all the details of her tiny, cosy world”. For Gathorne-Hardy, this twilight world of tea trolleys and loyal retainers seemed like the last refuge of a backward-looking nation in gentle decline. But the office was still there in 2001, and it is still there now.

So yes, a decade on, they are all still working in that dilapidated tower block on the Slough Trading Estate. The Wernham Hogg paper merchants has ridden out the recession because that is another thing that was supposed to happen and never did: the paperless office. As the need to keep employees on message has created an avalanche of ritualistic emails and incantatory memos, the demand for paper has soared. Gareth has been promoted to regional manager and regularly watches The Apprentice for tips on business leadership. David Brent still hangs around, doing bad impressions of Michael McIntyre, even though he was sacked years ago. And Tim is still talking about leaving to study psychology at university, but the £9000 fees have put him off. Fortunately, he is now married to Dawn and they have found love and happiness away from the office.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

I'll remember Aigburth

I went to the last one-day international between England and Sri Lanka at Old Trafford yesterday with my dad. Watching cricket is as much a ritual as playing the game itself. I never cease to marvel at the extent to which groups of men, despite having paid forty pounds each for a ticket and over the odds for countless pints of inferior lager with a fake German name, will spend the entire day doing almost anything – playing bongos, making towers out of empty plastic beer glasses, screaming at Robbie Savage in the executive boxes to try to get him to wave – rather than watch the unfolding spectacle in front of them. I am sure this is not what C.L.R. James meant when he famously said, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’

I think my two favourite books about cricket are Mike Marqusee’s Anyone But England and one I have just read, Duncan Hamilton’s A Last English Summer. Marqusee’s has a memorable description of how, as an expat American attending his first cricket match, he became entranced by the strange, pointless beauty of the changing field arrangements at the end of an over. Hamilton’s is a journey around the cricket season in the Ashes summer of 2009 (inspired by Geoffrey Moorhouse’s The Best Loved Game which does the same for the 1978 season) covering everything from the Lords test to the Lancashire League. I was pleased to see that there is a chapter entitled ‘Yes, I’ll remember Aigburth’ – where I live – about Hamilton’s visit to Liverpool Cricket Club when Andrew Flintoff was appearing for Lancashire to prove his fitness to the England selectors, and where ‘the sun appears briefly, as if wanting to see for itself whether Flintoff is fit’. Hamilton, whom I knew previously from his brilliant biography of Brian Clough, has a lovely turn of phrase, from his account of Leary Constantine ‘hold[ing] the shot, as though posing for a sculptor who is about to strike his chisel against a huge fresh block of stone and free the shape concealed within it’ to his description of ‘the gasometer [at the Oval], rising and falling like a concertina’.

Hamilton also mentions a 1953 film, The Final Test, scripted by Terence Rattigan, in which one of the characters, a poet-cum-playwright played by Robert Morley, says, ‘Of course it’s frightfully dull. That’s the whole point. Any game can be exciting … the measure of the vast superiority of cricket over any other game is that it steadfastly refuses to cater for this boring craving for excitement. To go to cricket to be thrilled is as stupid as to go to a Chekhov play in search of melodrama.’

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Instant good taste

I was sorry to hear about the demise of Habitat, another example of the current carnage on the High Street that has also consumed Thornton’s and TJ Hughes. I loved the Habitat store in Deansgate, Manchester, when I was a child, with its primary colours, lower-case logos and Scandinavian blond-woods. Terence Conran opened the first Habitat store on the Fulham Road in South Kensington in May 1964. The day before its opening, a Sunday Times article entitled ‘What the smart chicks are buying’ publicised ‘a swinging shop called Habitat’ which would present ‘the pick of the furnishing pops under one roof’ and ‘make shopping for the home an impulsive, gay affair’. Habitat later branched out into the provinces and a flourishing mail-order business, but in the 1960s it was largely a London phenomenon, with other branches opening in Tottenham Court Road (1966), Kingston (1967) and Bromley (1968).

Conran recognized that the now servantless middle classes wanted elegant but low-maintenance housewares: cutlery that did not need endless polishing; tables that looked good without tablecloths; earthenware dishes that went straight from the oven to the dinner table; and new cooking utensils like the Wok which allowed meals to be prepared in minutes. One of Habitat’s bestselling items in the 1960s was the duvet, a continental innovation which ended the tedious routine of bedmaking with underblankets and top sheets. Other products, like the Boule Japonaise or spherical paper lampshade introduced in the mid-1960s, were statements of ‘conspicuous thrift,’ cheap but stylish items for young couples on a limited budget.

Habitat sold a complete range for the home, from salt mills to sofas, with the stores arranged in mock living rooms or kitchens to show how items could be combined to produce a ‘look’. The store’s first promotional brochure claimed that its ‘pre-selected shopping programme’ offered ‘instant good taste … for switched-on people’. This was important because its customers were drawn not only from the established middle classes but also from interlopers who were the first in their families to receive a university education and enter the professions. If urban gentrifiers filled their new homes with Habitat goods, they could avoid any obvious lapses of taste. Habitat combined a domesticated modernism (scooped-out eggshell chairs, modular Olga shelving, Magistretti tables) with rustic authenticity (pine dressers, iron bedsteads, quarry tiles). Its synthesis of urban minimalism and pastoral chic, ‘bang on the trend for cosy countrified living,’ allowed the new middle classes to live in the modern city while remaining disengaged from its seamier aspects. Like David’s recreation of Mediterranean cuisine in metropolitan kitchens, Habitat offered a kind of domesticated version of the ‘urban village’. The Habitat style had its roots in the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, with their emphasis on simplicity, naturalness and ‘fitness to purpose’. Unlike Morris, however, Conran embraced rather than denied the contradictions inherent in mass-marketing such a style at middle-class urbanites.

In London as elsewhere, gentrifiers often defined themselves in relation to other members of the middle classes who had not made the same life choices. In particular, they embraced the city as an edgy, cosmopolitan alternative to the supposed conformity and homogeneity of the suburbs. Habitat exploited this ethos, promoting itself as classless and egalitarian in a way that was implicitly anti-suburban, part of an argument between different sections of the middle classes over what constituted the good life. Habitat’s youngish customers liked the conspicuous absence of the furniture and materials they would have associated with their parents: coffee tables with splayed legs, cocktail cabinets, standard lamps, Blue Willow china, moquette and linoleum. They could use the distancing effects of time and geography to ‘slum it’ with the southern European peasantry or the below-stairs classes of the Victorian era, without actually losing their middle-class identities. While the store was theoretically open to all in the sense that its products were relatively cheap, it was clearly aimed at the educated, urban middle class. With great commercial acumen, Conran tied this lifestyle revolution to a general aura of social progressivism and ethical consumerism. Habitat’s left-liberal customers could embrace the marketplace without feeling they had ‘sold out’.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Catechism of Cliché

Although I have quoted from its ‘Not Many Dead’ column, I hadn’t actually read the Oldie magazine in full until this week. It’s hard to dislike a publication which has a non-cryptic ‘Moron crossword’, adverts that begin ‘Does sitting make your back ache?’ and ‘After 5 years of suffering … I now have no pain or swelling in my legs’, and a competition to win a mobility scooter. I learn, by the way, that there are four different types of mobility scooter: UltraGlide, SuperGlide, EasyGlide and MicroGlide. Caveat Emptor …

The Oldie also has a ‘Cliché Corner’ which is clearly a homage to the Catechism of Cliché, a regular feature of the column by Myles na gCopaleen, alias Flann O’Brien, in the Irish Times. The Catechism of Cliché, based of course on the question and answer format of the Catholic Catechism, was ‘a unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print.’ Example: Is a man ever hurt in a motor smash? NO. HE SUSTAINS AN INJURY. Does such a man ever die from his injuries? NO. HE SUCCUMBS TO THEM. etc. etc. The Oldie’s take on this in July’s edition is topical:

What season is now in prospect?
A SUMMER OF DISCONTENT.
How are we to characterise Trade Union leaders?
THEY ARE ANTIDILUVIAN.
And what are the walkouts designed to do?
TO CAUSE MAXIMUM DISRUPTION.
To what will the London Underground system be brought by threatened strikes?
A GRINDING HALT.
What will follow a strike by schoolteachers?
A. CHAOS FOR PARENTS;
B. MAYHEM.
And what are ministers going to put in place?
RIGOROUS CONTINGENCY PLANS.
What will be inflicted on the public?
REAL MISERY.
How is the public to be characterised?
LONG-SUFFERING.
And how will the country be affected?
IT WILL BE HELD TO RANSOM.

Indeed, it is safe to say that if there is ever a Chilcot inquiry into what Martin Amis called the war against cliché, the journalists and columnists of the summer of discontent will be completely exonerated.