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.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The discretion of trees

‘The discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting,’ writes Robert Macfarlane in his book The Wild Places. We’ve moved into a new building at work, and there is an inner garden with about two dozen trees, some of the younger ones with plaques commemorating people who have died. My favourite, and definitely the most venerable, is a London plane you can see from the window of the staff common room. From its height and trunk size, I’d guess it’s over a hundred years old.

This London plane may have lost its sense of direction and fetched up in the wrong city but it is at least a city tree, and we are in the heart of the city here. Its rubbery leaves repel urban grime and pollution, and it is tough enough to flourish even in paved-over soil. Our London plane looks solid, stoical, happy for us to live alongside it, perhaps a little irritated by our noisy egotism but far too polite to mention it. In his book The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn, Richard Mabey argues that our relationship with trees is a model for how we should relate to the natural world as a whole, a relationship based on neighbourliness and undemanding reciprocity rather than ownership or coercion. The way we breathe the exhalations of trees, without either the trees or us being aware of it, is, he suggests, ‘a true unconscious communion’.

A lot of the other trees are limes, with great nests of leaves snaking round their trunks. I think I may pass on Mabey's suggestion, in his book Flora Britannica, that the young leaves of limes 'make refreshing sandwich fillings'. But it's nice being around the solid trunks of trees while undergoing the self-absorbing and nerve-shredding experience of having a new book out - which may, involve, at any point, someone saying that it wasn't worth pulping all those trees so they could have it in their hands. Or they may just ignore it, which is saying the same thing in a kinder, but somehow crueller, way. But I think I’m going to enjoy being around trees, and am looking forward to autumn.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The bright box in the corner

I had a couple of TV-related pieces out this week. This was in last Saturday’s Guardian:


And this piece, on the history of the TV critic, was in today’s Financial Times:

Dennis Potter, whose career as Daily Herald TV critic I briefly mention in the FT piece, carried on writing about television throughout the 1960s and 1970s, mostly for the New Statesman and the Sunday Times. Unusually for a TV critic, he often mentioned his immediate surroundings while watching TV and talked freely about how it affected his analysis of what was on. ‘The bright box in the corner of the room can turn itself within minutes into a hell-hole,’ he wrote in November 1974 after the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham. ‘There, where the dancers cavort and pop singers clean their teeth with the microphone, where lewd comedians snigger and magical detergents remove impossible stains, there, inches above the carpet, is a chopped, edited, summarised version of a few of the terrors and miseries and endless conflicts which afflict our kind … We can look down and see the world boiling, and then we can go and put the cat out.’ At the height of the IMF crisis in October 1976, he wrote: ‘I do not think I have ever felt quite so low-spirited as I did on Monday night when reduced to watching Panorama in a hotel room in London while cold rain splattered on the smeared glazing which separated my few cubic inches of stale air from the dirty and darkened streets of what is now apparently the capital city of the damned.’  

Potter’s psoriatic illness made notetaking a great strain and involved a lot of enforced TV watching while bed-ridden. ‘The television set along the next corridor was almost permanently clamped to the commercial channel,’ he wrote of one hospital stay in March 1975, ‘the switch presided over by an amiably bronchitic master of ceremonies who between rattling coughs pronounced at suitable intervals that it was all shit.’

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The picture swam out of nothing

This week Profile sent me a couple of advance copies of Armchair Nation, which is out on 5 September. Too late to include it in the book, but I came across this nice description of a TV watcher in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1964 novel The Soul of Kindness:

'He sat down opposite it, waiting for it to warm up, his hands clasped across his stomach, his face wearing a patient expression. That nuisance cat Flore had given him came to rub against his legs but he pushed it aside. He was all ready to pass judgment. The picture suddenly swam out of nothing, following the sound. A quiz programme. Two rows of people facing one another. A pompous, schoool-masterly man asking the question. Those answers that Percy knew he spoke out loudly and promptly; when he was at a loss, he pretended (as if he were not alone) that he had not quite caught the question, or was too busy blowing his nose to make his reply, or had to go to help himself to whisky.’

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Peeing on the fire

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. (I already read and enjoyed one of his previous books, A Room of My Own, about building his own Walden-style log cabin in his back garden in Connecticut.) Barbecues are often dismissed as pieces of alpha-male theatre but Pollan uses the arguments of the anthropologist Richard Wrangham – that cooking with fire is what made us human and lifted us out of our animal existence – to suggest that barbecues are ‘ceremonial acts of remembering — who we are, where we came from, how nature works’. He is such a light, witty, elegant writer. Here he is skewering Freud and turning him over on the barbie until he’s nicely done:

‘Freud traces the control of fire to the fateful moment when man – and by “man” in this case he really means man – first overcame the urge to extinguish whatever fires he chanced upon by peeing on them. For countless millennia this urge apparently proved irresistible, much to the detriment of civilization, the rise of which awaited its repression … The course of human history shifted on the fateful day when it dawned on some fellow possessed of an unusual degree of self-control that he didn’t have to pee on the fire, and could instead preserve the flames and put them to some good use: keeping himself warm, say, or cooking his dinner. Freud believed this advance, like so much else of value in civilization, owed to the unique human ability to govern, or repress, the inner drives and urges before which other animals are powerless. (Not that we have many reports of animals putting out fires with their urine.) For him, the control of self is the precondition for the control of fire and, in turn, for the civilization that that discovery made possible … In all the time I’ve now spent with pit masters, whiling away the hours before the smoldering logs, I’ve never once brought up Freud’s fire theory. I’m just not sure how well it would go over.’

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The sound of laughter

As my mum was a schoolteacher, I was familiar from an early age with that eerie feel of empty classrooms at night when the other pupils have left and only the smell of disinfectant wafts through the corridors. It’s felt a bit like that in this building recently, as we’re moving out of it at the end of the month. Today we saw a fox sunning itself on the lawn - bold as you like, casing the joint, perhaps ready to move into my office when I'm gone so it can keep up with its paperwork.  

It’s been a nice old cove, this building, albeit an acoustically leaky one. A scraping chair in the room above sounded like the crackle of gunfire, and you could hear the low murmur of conversations emanating from other offices – punctuated, often, by the sound of laughter. I’ve never been very good at laughter myself – either producing it in others (at least, not without a script) or allowing it to emerge from within myself. So I’m more than usually aware that a laugh is a beautiful sound, a little piece of natural music that no other animal creates. (Hyenas don’t count because they laugh at anything, even Mrs Brown’s Boys.) The paradox of laughter is that it's both an involuntary expression of approval and a cultural reflex, a way of oiling the wheels of human interaction.

‘Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo,’ wrote Henri Bergson in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. ‘Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating from one to another, something beginning with a crash, to continue in successive rumblings, like thunder in a mountain. Still, this reverberation cannot go on for ever. It can travel within as wide a circle as you please: the circle remains, none the less, a closed one. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group … laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary. How often has it been said that the fuller the theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter of the audience!’

Spontaneous laughter is the best review you will ever get – so much more precious and truth-telling than polite applause. How many comics would love to bottle it up and store it somewhere so it’s more than just a memory? But laughter has no archive: it dies on the air without an echo. And this building, which is just a pile of old bricks, will never know how much laughter emerged from within its walls.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The shyness of scholars

In his essay 'The Shyness of Scholars', William Hazlitt wrote:

'That a life of privacy and obscurity should render its votaries bashful and awkward, or unfit them for the routine of society, from the want both of a habit of going into society and from ignorance of its usages, is obvious to remark.

The scholar, having to encounter doubts and difficulties on all hands, and indeed to apply by way of preference to those subjects which are most beset with mystery, becomes hesitating, sceptical, irresolute, absent, dull. All the processes of his mind are slow, cautious, circuitous, instead of being prompt, heedless, straightforward.'

It seems appropriate to insert the word 'ouch' here ...

Anyway, as a shy scholar I thought I might as well stop desperately swotting up on things I never quite know enough about and instead write about something on which I am, unfortunately, a leading authority:

And now I'm going to hide in this cupboard for a few days.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Vox populi

Last Thursday I delivered the Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture at King’s College, London, on ‘Vox Populi?: The Recorded Voice and Twentieth-Century British History.’ It told the story of voice-recording technologies from gramophone records onwards, focusing in particular on the anthropologists, oral historians and dialect scholars – people like the Scottish poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, the radio producer Charles Parker and the linguist Stanley Ellis - who travelled round the country in the 1950s and 1960s recording voices on the new portable tape recorders.

In the course of writing the lecture I became a bit of a connoisseur of great radio voices: John Arlott’s Test Match special burr, so evocative of English summers past; the beautifully sonorous Richard Burton as First Voice in Under Milk Wood (a voice trained by its owner's mentor, Philip Burton, by taking him up into the Welsh hills and making him shout across the valleys); the dying fall at the end of Garrison Keillor’s sentences as he recounts the news from Lake Wobegon; Charlotte Green reading the Shipping Forecast, making you glad you’re not anywhere near Rockall tonight.

The miniaturisation and democratisation of voice-recording technology over the course of the last century means that we have largely forgotten what a strange and quasi-magical thing it is to preserve someone’s voice. A voice has a signature as distinctive as a fingerprint and a recording of it is a uniquely intimate encounter with that person. Since a voice is essentially just an exhaled breath, a series of vibrations of air produced by different parts of the body from the abdomen to the lips, a recording of it can convey the sense of being alive at a moment in time and space perhaps better than any other historical evidence. Recordings of voices remind us that their owners are not just textual traces but were once breathing bodies, trying, just like us, to make themselves heard.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Daily Mail archive

I’ve been browsing the Daily Mail Historical Archive, a new digital database for which my university currently has a trial subscription. It’s a fascinating resource for the social and cultural historian, although if I were being picky, I’d have to say that some of the stories can get a bit samey (see below).

‘The number of foreigners who cross the Channel and make England their home is increasing in alarming proportion … This sea-girt island of ours also seems to be a happy “half-way house” for the foreigner leaving his own country for other lands …’ (‘Immigrants on the increase’, Daily Mail, 16 January 1901.)

‘Hygiene standards among West Indians, Nigerians, and other coloured immigrants are so low that new problems are being created for London’s health authorities, says a health officer …’ (‘Immigrants “cause new health problems”’, Daily Mail, 7 September 1961.)

‘Private security men working at London’s Heathrow Airport have uncovered an audacious immigrant smuggling racket … The illegal travellers are hidden behind trays of food and bins of catering debris and driven through the security gates to the “safety” of the catering firm’s headquarters in Middlesex …’ (‘Smuggled Asians: Jet Set Style’, Daily Mail, 13 August 1973.)

‘Today Western Europe is haunted by the spectre of mass illegal immigration from the Third World and Eastern Europe, where the aftermath of Marxism leaves a devastated landscape …’ (‘Swamped … by the new underclass’, Daily Mail, 8 October 1991.)

‘The tide of immigrants lapping at our shores has become a tidal wave. Every day, hundreds arrive here from Eastern Europe, lured by the promise of a state-subsidised lifestyle they can only dream of back home …’ ‘(Welcome to Gravy Train UK’, Daily Mail, 3 October 1998.)

I also discovered that the Daily Mail first used the phrase ‘bogus asylum seeker’ on 6 November 1996,  in an article titled ‘Rapist’s refuge in Britain’.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Goodbye, Mr Chips

This week I've been clearing out my office and packing my books into cardboard boxes. We are moving to a new building soon. It's been like Haydn’s farewell symphony here this year: desks, chairs and people have gradually disappeared as they've been relocated elsewhere. And soon the knock on the door will come and it will be my turn.

It's an evocative and melancholic experience, getting rid of discarded drafts of articles that went nowhere, uncollected students' essays and old minutes of meetings that I am no longer supposed to keep under the Data Protection Act. The names of former students and colleagues spring up like Proustian madeleines. And so much paper! Yellowing, frayed, no-good-for-anything-anymore paper, with things written on it that might as well be Babylonic Cuneiform. I also found some money in a tupperware box - £140 in notes that are no longer even legal tender. I have no idea how it got there. ('Dougal, the money was just resting in my account ...')

The managerialist university has no sense of history and no memory, because it is about processes rather than people. Action points, delivery strategies, going forward. The only tense that matters now is the future. But people have memories and feelings, and they can't help becoming attached to places and things, even if they are just filing cabinets and operators' chairs.

And in the blink of an eye my life passed. All my shelves have now been emptied and the paper bagged up and ready to be shredded. My office looks like an entry for the Turner prize. I'm going to call it 'Goodbye Mr Chips'.

And as I sit in the echoing emptiness of my office, this poem springs to mind:

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Before Hardy had written a word

This week’s Radio Times has a piece by me called ‘The day that changed television forever’ about the televising of the coronation, which took place 60 years ago on Sunday. It being a special Coronation-themed issue, I’m sandwiched between an interview with David Dimbleby and a recipe for Mary Berry’s Coronation Cake.

It’s a little reflected-upon fact that quite a lot of the people who watched television in those earliest days would have grown up in the late nineteenth century. What on earth did these late Victorians make of this new idiot’s lantern? Ronald Blythe’s grandmother, born in 1860 ‘before Hardy had written a word’, lived long enough ‘to glimpse our first television set, a sturdy affair with the lines of a fruit machine’. Arthur Perry, born in 1869, simply took the television set for granted: ‘He never said, “Isn’t it amazing!” or “It’s a miracle!” and in his eighties, he used to sit in front of the telly and grumble about the rotten programmes. “It’s about time they got some new stuff on,” he’d say.’ Arthur Perry was the father of Jimmy Perry, the co-writer of Dad’s Army, and this quote is taken from the latter’s memoir, Stupid Boy.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

A beneficent incubus

Today is the centenary of Richard Dimbleby’s birth. (The anniversary is being commemorated with this new stamp from the Royal Mail.) And on 2 June it will be 60 years since his famous television broadcast of the coronation. (So he was only just 40 when he did it – he sounds older.) Dimbleby’s style – mellifluous, paternalistic, reassuring – is often seen as symbolic of an era of broadcasting that is lost forever, for good and ill. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, an anxious mother rang the editor of Panorama, Paul Fox. ‘There’s only one thing I want Richard Dimbleby to do,’ she said. ‘I want him to tell me if it’s safe for my daughter to go to school tomorrow.’

Actually, there were some critical voices even while Dimbleby was in his prime. In 1956, the Daily Mirror’s Cassandra wrote that he ‘shimmers in his own unction … he swells in a glycerine respect for his subject that makes the Royal Family look like an advertisement for an immensely costly hair tonic … platitudes coming hushed, honeyed from their author, standing at waistcoated attention’.

Anthony Burgess complained of ‘those periodical Dimbleby Ubiquity Weeks’ characterised by ‘a surfect of omnicompetence mingled with upper-middle-class decency and articulacy, bulkily incarnated – an excessive dispensation of Better Self, a beneficent incubus that, lying so heavily on the chest, is bound to act like a nightmare … The Dimbleby lineaments comprise quiet decency, literacy without intellectuality, staidness untempered by quirkiness, above all an aura of utter integrity. These are rare qualities, and we have to pay heavily to get them. We have to yield our right to what makes life worth living and television viewable – namely, the unpredictable, the lunatic, the indiscreet, the inefficient.’

It’s true that about the nearest Dimbleby came to controversy was when he was told off by his bosses for mentioning his tailor on air. And it’s true that he was a Burkean conservative who liked the gentle changing of the seasons and the continuities of English traditions. His experience at Belsen, where he had delivered an unforgettable radio report as the BBC’s war correspondent, had persuaded him of the value of tradition as a way of ensuring that barbarism would never again triumph over civilisation. His coronation commentary wasn’t oleaginous, nor was it even hushed as Cassandra claimed; but its reverence was implicit.

But Dimbleby was also an absolutely wonderful broadcaster. The rhetorical flourish with which he matched words to pictures, an adaptation of the older techniques of radio to the new medium, has not been equalled since. And if you don’t believe me, listen to his masterly commentary on Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965:

Saturday, 18 May 2013

What love means

Thirty years ago, the historian Theodore Zeldin wrote this about love:

‘No one knows quite what love means, no two people have experienced it in quite the same way … Love cannot be counted or measured, but it has to be incorporated into explanations of behaviour and events. One way to elucidate its content is to break it up into the elements of which it may be composed, and to use these as tools for an individual kind of historical exploration. Thus attractiveness is one of those elements. It is possible to rearrange the facts of history so as to make it a central criterion. People can be divided not only into rich and poor, capitalists and workers, lords and commons, but also into those who are attractive and those who are not, for reasons which need not always be associated with material possessions, or social status. The attractive are a class also. Attractiveness is a source both of power and of disadvantages. It can be a snare, an easy label that damns the person to whom it is applied; it is manipulated by unwritten laws; it has its own literature, its manuals on how to make friends and influence people; it has its own aesthetics and ethics; it is as unstable a source of prestige as politics or money; the criteria by which it is judged change drastically with age … Love has its own tyrants, conquests, battles and alliances. It could provide a thread for linking the history of conflict in the past quite as well as the history of war.’

Zeldin’s quote came to mind after I spent an enjoyable day recently at the Great Diary Project, the archive of private citizens’ diaries held at the Bishopsgate Library near Liverpool Street Station (thanks to Luke Parks for helping me find everything I wanted). It seems obvious when you think about it, but many of the diarists, particularly the young ones, are far less concerned about politics, society or the state of the economy than with the progress of their own love lives.

One teenage girl diarist, writing from a private school in Cumbria in the early 1950s, fills her Letts day-a-page desk diaries with lipstick kisses and news of her latest crushes, and has a list of boys’ names at the back against headings like ‘love, hate, passion, friendship, courtship, flintship, marriage’ – a sort of 1950s version of ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’.

Meanwhile, an Oxford undergraduate writes this in his diary of 31 December 1954: ‘S. and I went to New Forest players’ dance. It was quite a good one, and we enjoyed it (at Grand Marine). Afterwards, however, S. wanted me to make love to her - and then we had to have another long chat about things - she has fallen in love w. me, which is rather unfortunate. However, she is realistic & wants to maintain friendship.’

On 29 November 1955 he writes: ‘Rang A. this evening and had a long talk. She sounds so lovely - I am determined to marry her if I possibly can.’ Things then seem to go a bit awry. ‘In rather a temper I penned her an angry note,’ he writes of A. on 6 December 1955. And then on 31 December: ‘A. met me. A meal, then we sat and chatted till a.m. I feel she is a bit restrained about something.’ Fortunately, all is well. The next diary in the archive from the same diarist is inscribed ‘given by darling A.’ – and it’s a two-year diary, so she’s obviously planning to stick around. Phew. Poor S., though.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Nature abhors a vacuum

On his morning walk from High Holborn to Fleet Street in 1947, in the rubble stretching from Farringdon Road to Fetter Lane, the young journalist Kenneth Allsop spotted a pair of kestrels - ‘like a lean pair of Che Guevara’s jungle guerrillas prowling through Harrods’, he wrote later. In 1949 he published Adventure Lit their Star (1949), a fictionalised piece of nature writing based on his own experiences as a wounded RAF pilot watching the previously rare little ringed plover in the gravel pits and sewage farms near Staines, Middlesex. Allsop was a pioneer in the new field of of urban ecology.

At the end of the 1960s Allsop, by then a star writer and TV presenter on the BBC show Tonight, wrote an article for the Sunday Times about wildlife thriving in the last remaining bombsites and scrubland in the centre of London. Allsop’s theme was the usefulness of the human-made landscape as a makeshift natural habitat. ‘How willing nature is to forgive the insults of man,’ he wrote, noting the absence of snobbishness with which kestrels nested on both the Savoy hotel and the Poplar gasometers. ‘How magnanimously she responds and pumps back life, like blood into dead tissue, once the environment is cleansed.’ At the height of his TV fame, in the mid-1960s, Allsop had moved from London to an old millhouse near Powerstock, Dorset where he wrote a regular column for the Daily Mail about his life there, collected as In the Country (1972). This part of the world was more remote than it is now:

‘BBC2 cannot penetrate our valley fastness. Colour has never been glimpsed. BBC1 comes in blurrily through a blizzard of static. On our regional commercial station we see, scratchily, ads for car marts far down the coast and scenes shot in smart candle-lit restaurants frequented by the beau monde of Plymouth. French programmes jabber dominantly on our screen, and there are occult images which are said to float in from Madrid. I am thinking of demanding my licence fee back from the government and declaring a TV UDI.’

Allsop’s style - describing a badger’s bottom as ‘waggling like an old boy in baggy trousers’, a starling as ‘a winged hippy with self-grown furbelows’, greenhouses as ‘bottling summer like Schiaparelli does scent’ and rats as scrabbling through his compost heap ‘like bargain hunters at a rummage stall’ – was unashamedly anthropocentric and uninfected by the quaintness or purple prose that afflicted much country writing before him. Allsop also made a BBC documentary, The Wildlife of New York, complete with stick insects crawling up Harley Davidsons and cockroaches congregating in the wiring behind telephone receivers. ‘Nature cannot abide a vacuum,’ he wrote in In the Country. ‘With an exactitude far more intricate and discriminating than our wonder dating-service computers … every niche is filled.’

Given the wonderful aliveness of the book, it is hard to believe that Allsop ended his own life a year after it was published.

You can watch Richard Mabey talking about Allsop here: