Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy old year

Well, old December’s bareness lies everywhere and the beautiful, death-struck year draws to its close – and I’ve managed to keep this blog coughing and spluttering for a whole twelve months, so hurrah for me. As a contemporary historian I read a lot of diaries and journals, and I’ve always found something rather touching about the entries for new year’s eve and new year’s day, when the diarists offer their reflections on the year just past and proffer hopes for the year to come – both now long gone of course:

‘Last day of the 1970s. Clear, dry, fine, cold … On the way back to Hampstead Heath a magnificently cheery black ticket-collector waived my offer of the extra 16p for my ticket with great bonhomie. “Happy New Year,” he shouted. It was like the end of A Christmas Carol!
Friends come round in the evening and we eat Chinese take-away and play games and half watch a poor compilation of the 1970s from BBC TV. As midnight strikes and the first chimes of the 1980s are met by the obligatory cheers of well-oiled Scotsmen on the box, we take photos of ourselves in celebration and agree that whatever happens – barring the work of the Grim Reaper, of course – we will look back at these pics together on December 31st 1989!’ – Michael Palin, 31 December 1979

‘Saw the old year literally “go out” on the Northern Line tube, at East Finchley! Michael Harald, Hitchman, Susan, Rachel & me – all returning from the Kaufmanns’ gewöhnlich parlour games party, all did our “Auld Lang Syne” stuff in the carriage, and I invited the one other passenger (a ragged and befogged gentleman of 40 or so years) to join us in the crossed hands ritual …
So the old year of ’51 has gone … not a very auspicious year and yet – I feel a certain sentimental affection for it … it was the first year I cried properly. Cried my eyes out on Boxing Night … in a sudden wave of utter futility … such a very silly young man.’ – Kenneth Williams, 1 January 1952

‘I hope that 1958 may bring you God's blessing and all the things you long for.’ - The Queen’s first TV Christmas broadcast, 25 December 1957

I hope so too – or I hope it did.

And for anyone reading this (although here’s hoping these words won’t seem proleptically poignant to someone stumbling across this blog in 2059) I wish you all beauty, inspiration and mundane delight in 2010.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Merry Christmas 1973

Before this blog shuts up shop for its Christmas break, I thought I would post a newspaper article I did last Christmas. Sadly we haven’t yet emerged into the bright sunlit consumerist uplands so I guess at least some of what it says still applies.

If anyone’s still out there, a merry Christmas to all my readers. Peace and blogospherical joy to you all.


It looks like being an austerity Christmas. Radio 2 has already run a “Don’t cancel Christmas” campaign, including Delia Smith’s budget recipe for pot-roast turkey drumsticks and advice about doing the shopping on eBay and plumping out the stuffing with cornflakes. The tone of the TV adverts seems smugly Spartan, like the one that rips off the ostentatious gift-wrapping scene in Love Actually before declaring that “at Argos, we make a little less fuss”.

To find a similar mood, you have to go back to Christmas 1973, when the last great global recession began. Then Britain had also just come to the abrupt end of an unsustainable property boom, the FTSE was in freefall and December had its very own credit crunch, when the fringe banks which had offered unwise loans to property developers looked on the verge of collapse and the Bank of England launched a £3000m “lifeboat” to increase liquidity. The chancellor Anthony Barber, just like Alistair Darling, announced a pre-Christmas emergency budget. Then, as now, everyone knew that a long period of unbroken prosperity was over.

But we are not in an episode of Life on Mars, and there the historical parallels start to fizzle out. The end of 1973 was a real state of emergency. A combination of the OPEC oil crisis and industrial action threatened to bring the country to its knees. Thousands of people queued for hours outside post offices to receive petrol ration books. In mid-December, Edward Heath announced the three-day week and for a time it looked like Christmas might really be cancelled. All display lighting was banned and Christmas shoppers searched for gifts by candlelight and hurricane lamps. There were fears that presents and cards would not arrive in the post, that people would not have enough fuel to heat their homes or enough petrol to visit their families. The Daily Mirror’s front page asked: “Is everybody going mad?”

The fate of the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree hung in the balance. At the lighting ceremony on 14 December, its 650 bulbs were lit up and then switched off again. The Norwegians offered to send a special electricity generator for it so that it would not have to rely on the national grid. Eventually the environment minister Geoffrey Rippon granted a special dispensation for all outdoor trees to be lit for just three days over Christmas.

Yet many people rather enjoyed the subdued and melancholy atmosphere. Released from the endless obligation to get and spend, they started talking to strangers and noticing their surroundings more – and Britain’s cities did look pleasingly Dickensian by gaslight. Many factory workers had 11 days off, their longest ever Christmas break. Fuel turned out to be less catastrophically scarce than feared – enough, anyway, to see cars through to the new year. Christmas was reprieved. Everyone hunkered down in their just-about heated homes and forgot for a few days that the world was collapsing around them.

In fact, the Christmas that almost didn’t happen now reads like a collection of warm-hearted seasonal cliches. Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas, with a Santa Claus who seemed appropriately grumpy for the economic downturn, was a children’s bestseller. Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” beat Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” to number one. On TV, people watched the first ever Mike Yarwood Christmas Show and Vanessa Redgrave camping it up with Morecambe and Wise. Secular Britons returned to old certainties and found the true meaning of Christmas in the bumper issue of the Radio Times.

Perhaps paradoxically, Christmas is a good time to have a crisis. It is a compulsory caesura, a demonstration of the power of ritual over fate and circumstance. Ever since it began as a pagan festival in the middle of the winter solstice, Christmas was designed to be celebrated through cloudy, unprosperous days. Christmas narratives, including the Biblical one, are full of tales of it almost not happening and then being rescued from disaster at the last minute.

Things are not, or not yet, as bad as 1973. No one is ordering television to stop at 10.30pm; there will be no Christmas tree blackout. But the lesson of 35 years ago is that Christmas happens anyway, whatever else is happening. Now we are being urged to spend our way out of the recession, to pretend that it is business as usual. But the public mood seems to be to follow the ascetic example of our parents in 1973, driving slowly to save fuel, setting price limits on presents and staying at home. Gathered round the hearth – or its modern equivalent, the flatscreen TV – we may think, as Walter Scott wrote in Marmion: “Heap on more wood! The wind is chill; But let it whistle as it will. We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.”

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The brotherhood of boredom

It’s been the week of the office party, the Christmas meal, the ‘sorry you’re leaving’ card stuffed with Next vouchers and scribbled best wishes. It’s been a diet of cheap wine, mini-mince pies, stale samozas, soggy Doritos, chocolate marshmallows wrapped in foil and sandwich triangles with unidentified fillings and curled corners. I have measured out my life in Marks & Spencer’s party food.

This has all brought to mind the delicious melancholy of Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s classic book The Office, written nearly forty years ago when Ricky Gervais was still wearing short trousers in Reading:

‘It’s really a question of the small canvas. People who do petit-point and who get absorbed in thousands of small stitches. Or trompe l’oeil. I think in a way it may be for people who want to stay in the nursery. Certainly I’ve found myself thinking of the office as I ride towards it as a large squat nanny, waiting comfortably there to gently fuss me with all details of her tiny, cosy world …

‘This monotony is increased because shared. While office events are taking place around you, identical events are taking place in hundreds of thousands of offices in London, France, America, all over the world. An invisible pall of office activity hangs over one, exerting a continuous exhausting, psychic pressure. And the sense of number, spread across the world, makes the office seem part of the human condition, something from which it is impossible to escape …

‘It’s like Vivaldi. It’s an initial subjective reaction. If you like it, every variation is fascinating, however small. You know what I mean – there are tiny nuances within the repetition. Take leaden afternoons like this, when the rain is falling on bored buildings, so many bored buildings. Today there’s a feeling of universal boredom, a great brotherhood of boredom. I find it very warming.’

Talking of boozy Christmas meals, David Mitchell’s succinct explanation of the financial and environmental crisis in last week’s Observer says it all, really: ‘Our long, unaffordable global lunch is coming to an end and a headachey afternoon in the office beckons. We've spent the last 10 years downing extra digestifs to delay the arrival of the bill. But here it is, without so much as an accompanying mint, and it’s massive. The trick now is to persuade the third world to pay an equal share even though they only had a soup.’

Oh, well. While they were arguing in Copenhagen over who had the poppadoms, Roddy Woomble, lead singer of Scottish band Idlewild, cheered me up with his book of the year in the Sunday Herald: ‘I spend a fair bit of time driving from place to place, so Joe Moran’s On Roads was a pretty fascinating read, documenting the history of the British motorway system and the change in thinking that came with it. More a philosophy than a history, it’s full of memorable passages.’

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Nine carols without the lessons

This has got bugger all to do with the everyday or the banal, but it’s my blog and I can do what I like, so here in no particular order are my favourite Christmas songs/carols:

1. The loveliest Hollywood Christmas song ever:

2. John Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol:

3. We used to sing this Calypso Carol in primary school:

4. This one’s a no-brainer, obviously:

5. Kate Rusby with her South Yorkshire variant on a well-known carol:

6. Peter Cornelius’s Three Kings, always performed in carols from Kings on Christmas Eve:

7. A new one from Thea Gilmore:

8. Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, fondly remembered from the BBC children’s series The Box of Delights:

9. And (no sniggering at the back please) Christmas Day by Dido:

Sunday, 13 December 2009

O Tannenbaum

Here is a piece about Christmas trees I wrote for the Guardian a couple of years ago:

Along with most other aspects of the modern Christmas, America has bequeathed us our secular version of the nativity, retold in every medium from the Peanuts comic strip to the sitcom Friends: the story of the sparse, misshapen little Christmas tree that is saved by a benevolent consumer so it can fulfil its seasonal destiny. You would be hard-pressed to find any such sad-looking specimen among today’s plantation-grown, designer trees, with their flawless foliage, evenly spaced branches and miraculous needle-retaining qualities. But the Christmas tree industry still exploits this idea that individual trees are there waiting to be pitied, rescued and redeemed.

Inspired by the slow-food movement’s emphasis on local sourcing and sustainability, this industry has turned tree-buying into an all-day, themed event. We are now invited to attend festivals at Christmas tree farms, where we can stroll through illuminated forests, pick our own tree straight from the field, watch as it is pulled out by Shire horses, and leave with elaborate instructions on how to care for it to ensure that it is not dehydrated, overheated or otherwise traumatised. If we really must have a non-biodegradable artificial tree, then Marks & Spencer will assuage our consciences by planting a tree in a Scottish woodland for every plastic one it sells. The poor Christmas tree is being forced to bear the burden of all our contemporary ecological anxieties.

This year saw the publication of books about trees by two of our most distinguished nature writers: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood and Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings. These books are united in their dislike of this tendency to infantilise individual trees, this refusal to think of trees as communal organisms with resilient, independent lives of their own. Christmas trees, in particular, are only loved in the singular. Softwood plantations have been hated in this country ever since the 1940s and 1950s, when scientific forestry wiped out countless acres of native oak and beech to clear the ground for faster-growing, more lucrative conifers. Writers at the time complained about “spruce slums, ruining the soil,” “gloomy regiments of dark spruce trees, all exactly alike,” and “impudent little spruce trees goose-stepping on the fells”. It is almost as though we have showered conifers with love in December because we feel guilty about hating them for the rest of the year.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be nice to our Christmas trees, or that there is anything wrong with replanting schemes. But bringing a tree, even a container-grown one, into a centrally heated house is always going to be a fairly murderous act, so it seems a bit late by then to start treating the tree like a helpless child. Individually, trees are indeed vulnerable: the vast majority of them are killed off as saplings, not by human hands but by natural phenomena like canker, aphids and wet-rot. Collectively, though, trees are even hardier than us: an abandoned agricultural field will transform itself into a small wood in half a century, without any need for human intervention. “To care is a treacherous emotion,” writes Mabey, “apt to slip into a sense of custodianship, and then of possessiveness, into a habit of seeing the natural world as not just in need of protection, but unable to thrive without our help.” There is something self-centred about the way in which we cast ourselves alternately as the enemies and saviours of trees, pushing them to the centre of our own narratives and ignoring their tenacious otherness.

Even as the Christmas tree market increasingly demands consistency and uniformity in its products, the ritual of tree-buying still requires that we pick out our favourite and offer it a home. I must admit to feeling an anthropomorphic pang when I see the slightly lopsided, undersized trees left unwanted on the pavement outside florists. Since most Christmas trees are bought in the first two weeks of December, the ones that remain unsold now will probably finish up in the chipper. Their rejection just seems so palpable and public, like children not being picked for playground teams. This Christmas, however, I am trying not to feel too sorry for them.


Re my previous post about Hole in the Wall, Saturday night TV’s take on Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return. Last night while flipping channels I happened to catch a bit of the Hole in the Wall ‘highlights’ show, in which the host and the two team captains introduced clips of the ‘best bits’ from the series. For those intending to watch this later on iPlayer, I should perhaps offer a spoiler alert: these best bits consisted of celebrities trying to fit through oddly shaped holes in walls.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’ – Henry Thoreau

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Hurt feelings and potato peelings

I’ve just come across a little ditty from the Second World War, aimed at getting people to refrain from peeling their potatoes by invoking the name of Lord Woolton, the very popular Minister of Food:

Those that have the will to win
Cook potatoes in their skin
Knowing that the sight of peelings
deeply hurts Lord Woolton's feelings.

Given our cynical attitudes to contemporary politicians, it’s hard to imagine this kind of appeal to our better natures working today. But how about this one:

If you think New Labour’s bad
Gordon will be really sad.

Or perhaps this one from a few years ago:

If you don’t support the war
Tony’s feelings will be sore.

Although come to think of it, that isn’t a million miles away from how things were presented to us.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes’ – Marcel Proust

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Jukebox culture

I did this little history of the jukebox for the FT:

There were jukeboxes in Britain before the mid-1950s, but they weren’t up to much. There was a small, indigenous jukebox industry that developed out of Blackpool’s amusement arcade market, and which produced small, unassuming models resembling domestic fridges. But in 1955, with the period of postwar austerity finally at an end, the government relaxed import restrictions on luxury goods and American jukeboxes arrived in the UK.

These machines, made by famous companies such as Wurlitzer and Rock-Ola, derived their styling from the Detroit car industry. With their tail fins, chrome grilles and windscreens, they were exciting, colourful objects. They could also hold up to 100 records. The British popular music market was already dominated by teenagers but, with only offshore stations such as Radio Luxembourg taking any real interest in rock’n’roll, the jukebox was one of the main ways that young people could listen to new records. By the end of 1957, the UK had imported 8,000 jukeboxes from America.

The jukebox became a powerful symbol of juvenile delinquency, mainly because it encouraged teenagers to hang around, apparently doing nothing. (A “juke” was an American brothel or roadhouse offering cheap food, drinks and music, which derived its name from a west African word for disorderly or rowdy.) In 1958, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham attacked the “aimless juvenile café society”, which he blamed for leading young people into crime. “I do not think it a proper thing,” he said, “for groups of young people to go into coffee bars and spend hour after hour listening to records, buying cups of tea and coffee and bottles of pop.” He argued that these youngsters needed to be trained to spend their money wisely, instead of “feeding pennies into jukeboxes and fruit machines because they had nothing better to do with their spare time”. In Gillingham, Kent, in 1959, hundreds of young people performed a “processional jive”, marching to the municipal offices to protest against the banning of jukeboxes in coffee bars by the town’s magistrates.

Many established musicians were hostile to jukeboxes because they offered a cheap, synthetic alternative to live dance bands. They were right to be worried: the American jukebox helped to transform British popular music, paving the way for a new, youth-oriented market based around teen idols and hit singles.

On Roads appeared in a couple of those annual newspaper book roundups:

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I think Radio 4 is worth the entire licence fee … When I come back from holiday, and I put it on when I’m driving from the airport, and I hear Peter Donaldson saying, “And now part four of the history of the duffel coat,” I think oh yes, I’m home now, everything’s all right.’ – Sandi Toksvig

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Ghosts of Winter Hill

I went to see an excellent exhibition at Urbis in Manchester yesterday: Ghosts of Winter Hill, about the role of television in the city since the formation of Granada in 1956. The exhibition’s peg was the switching off of the analogue signal this year. There were some wonderful and rather touching mock-ups of 1950s and 1960s living rooms with Ekco bakelite television sets and forlorn-looking armchairs. It was the exhibition’s title that caught my eye. The first TV transmitters needed good elevation so they were built in these remote, romantic-sounding places: Holme Moss, Kirk o’Shotts, Emley Moor, Winter Hill. And ‘ghosts’ is just right too: there was something ethereal about those grainy 405-line transmissions, and early viewers were often troubled by ‘ghost images’ where one signal was laid on top of another.

Mostly it struck me, watching unremembered old clips of Granada TV’s Kick Off and The Army Game, how much of television is what Larkin called a ‘forgotten boredom’. Ludovic Kennedy, who died earlier this year and who is perhaps the only television presenter to fall asleep while interviewing someone, wrote in his autobiography that television was ‘comparable to a long train journey. As one gazes vacantly out of the window a succession of ever-changing images passes by. Occasionally something – the look of a house, a cricketer bowling, flowers in a garden – momentarily diverts the attention until another image takes its place, then it too vanishes and is forgotten, and presently, as with the television, we look away or pick up a newspaper or a magazine. For the essence of television is its ephemerality: it is a world of flickering images, each dying at the moment it is born … like the water tap or the electric light switch, we can take it for granted, turning it on or off at will, shifting from this channel to that, seeing a horse being born, survivors being pulled from wreckage, Miss World being crowned, one fish gobbling up another.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Even filling a Christmas stocking with tiny things was like writing a sonnet, keeping to the agreeable limitations of a strict form. Mundane things filled her with delight: picking up the blackened twigs from the lopped plane trees in the street, and later watching astonished as they burst into bud in a vase.’ – Jan Struther, Mrs Miniver

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The world unmapped

My last words on Argleton, from yesterday's Guardian:

It may be an unpromising place to look for Xanadu, but just north of Liverpool off the A59 there is a town that is already entering the annals of myth. This town, “Argleton”, appears on Google Maps, by mistake, and nowhere else. Mike Nolan and Roy Bayfield of Edge Hill University are the modern-day Marco Polos who discovered it and there is now a “save Argleton” campaign on the web which is urging Google not to correct the error.

The preservationists have poetry on their side. Argleton is a fortuitously evocative name, sounding a bit like Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop, that village in deepest England known only by its railway station; and even more like something out of an old Ealing comedy, about a town fighting for its autonomy against the faceless drones of Whitehall.

Perhaps the save Argleton campaign also marks the beginnings of a dissident movement, a reaction against the speed and stealth with which Google is mapping every last blade of grass in the world. It is easy to overlook how quickly this has happened. A decade ago, only government and the military could view comprehensive aerial photography of the UK. Even when aerial maps began to be marketed to the general public, they were endearingly primitive. Who now remembers and its “millennium map”, a mosaic aerial photograph of Britain photographed by Rockwell Aerocommanders flying at 5000 feet? I bought Getmapping’s photographic atlas of London as a Christmas present for my brother in 2000. The Guardian called it “a sublime book … an amazing labour of love”. What a waste of £40 it was – and how strange it now seems that someone would exchange folding money for a coffee table, non-zoomable-in version of what you could find on the internet for free a few years later.

Now Google Earth allows us to fly effortlessly from deep space to our own back garden in a matter of moments, and then switch to Google Street View and check out the state of our neighbours’ curtains. And while I don’t agree with the anti-privacy campaigners who have tried to stop them doing this – the earth is not copyrightable, after all, and a street is a public space – it is still disconcerting to discover, as I did recently, your own front door in high resolution on the web.

This is where Argleton comes in. Maps help us to explore the world but they can also sever us from it, reducing it to a matter of Cartesian lines and intersections – or, in Google’s case, vectors and pixels - rather than real, living places. In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit argues that getting lost has become a subversive and creative act, releasing us from our over-directed, intricately mapped existences and reacquainting us with the local and vernacular.

Perhaps this explains the schadenfreude that some people feel when they hear about motorists deposited in village ponds by their satnavs. The discovery of Argleton is part of the same reassertion of the local, the happy realisation that the world is not completely mappable, that not even Google knows as much as God or the people on the ground. The Argletonians are the contemporary equivalent of the apocryphal local leaning on a gate who, when asked directions by a motorist, sucks his teeth and says, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you”.

I am happy to confirm that, for now, Argleton remains a reassuring presence on Google Maps. In fact, having made my own explorations, I am even happier to confirm that it exists after all. Argleton is a real-life version of Brigadoon, the magical Scottish village dreamed up in Hollywood. By chance, I happened to visit it on the one day every hundred years that it appears out of the mists that drift across the West Lancashire plain. There I met the surveyor from Google Maps, who has been persuaded to stay in the town forever so that its magic spell will not be broken, and is now married to a local beauty with an uncanny resemblance to Cyd Charisse. So, all you preservationists, fear not. There is no need to “save Argleton”. Argleton endures; it will outlive us all.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Dear Blue Peter

I’ve been enjoying Dear Blue Peter (ed. Biddy Baxter), a collection of letters and emails received by the Blue Peter Correspondence Unit since it began in 1962. At its peak in the 1980s, the programme had an average weekly postbag of seven thousand letters. There are some lovely, touching letters from child viewers, and from parents who write in to say how much the programme means to their children. There are also some rather strange letters from grown-ups who seem to watch the programme primarily to get angry. The assigning of dark significance to idiosyncratic details, the humourless taking of offence, the suffocating earnestness … needless to say, students of the blogosphere will feel right at home. Here is a brief selection of the letters.

Dear Peter
I liked when you tried to ride a killer whale. I would like to see you try to skin dive and kill a shark. I have liked everything that Blue Peter has done especially that fort that Val made from lollypop sticks
Yours faithfully,
Ronald, Falkirk (1969)

Dear Miss Singleton,
Do please stop doing your hair as if you were a young girl. It is unbecoming, undignified & stupid – it makes you look like one of those cheap flappers.
I often wonder what the Royal Family think about it? Do please look your age when appearing.
Yours hopefully,
HWCC, Sussex (1972)

The Editor, Radio Times
Dear Sir
There is much to admire in Blue Peter but yesterday it reached the depths of inanity with the preposterous celebration of the birthday of two cats whose appearance has never been more than minimal and whose indifference to the proceedings are monumental … (1983)

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I’ve always felt that civilised behaviour was generally on a knife-edge. I can remember feeling that at school assemblies when someone would get up there and start talking. I can just remember thinking, ‘Gosh, if a man on a length of wire, stark naked suddenly swung across the stage, what would happen?’ ‘What would happen if I ran up there and stuffed a banana in his face?’ – something like that. I could almost do it. I don’t know if there’s a sort of syndrome for that. But I just felt these people are all playing a certain game, terribly sort of straight and focused, but only inches away from insanity.’ – Michael Palin

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Not just here for the beer

A little piece I did for the FT about Watneys Red Barrel, the allegedly appalling taste of which is now lost to history:

In 1936, the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club complained to the London brewery, Watneys, that its beer was not keeping until the weekend, when most of its customers came in. Watneys, which had been working on a prototype beer called Red Barrel intended for troops in India, swiftly redirected it to the less exotic surroundings of leafy Surrey. Red Barrel was a new type of beer: keg.

Unlike traditional cask beer, keg is no longer alive and fermenting: it is chilled, pasteurised and pumped with carbon dioxide to make it last longer. At first, keg was sold in just a few clubs that opened only at weekends. In the 1950s, however, it was rolled out to ordinary pubs, and by the mid-1970s, three-quarters of Britain’s pubs served no cask ale, only keg beer and lager.

Since brewers controlled most British pubs at this time, keg beer was often the only option for pub-goers. Brewers liked keg because it was easy to keep, but most customers either disliked it or were indifferent. The slogan “I’m only here for the beer”, used to sell Double Diamond in the early 1970s, was rarely true of any keg beer.

Watneys Red Barrel was the most reviled brand of all. Many drinkers hated not only its taste but the marketing that accompanied it, from irritating advertising jingles to entire pub refits. In 1971, in a misguided search for radical chic, Watneys urged beer-drinkers to “Join the Red Revolution”. Pubs were painted corporate red, bar staff wore red socks and posters featured lookalikes of Chairman Mao, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro supping Watneys.

That same year, the campaign against keg beer began with the foundation of Camra: the Campaign for Real Ale. Camra attacked the “mass-produced fizzy pap” of keg bitter and especially Watneys, which it nicknamed “Grotneys”. The invention of keg beer was an important moment in the industrialisation of the beer industry. But thanks to the efforts of more discerning drinkers, it failed to kill off cask ale – as shown today by the thriving number of real ale pubs and beer festivals, and the continued strength of Camra.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Ah, lipsmaggers!’ says Professor Stanley Unwin. ‘Elbone on bard, glistling glarps of Brewmastery frop and malty. Downit gulley’n throcus. Ah, deepjoy! As I always say, for the best picket in a blewflade – Flowers Brewmaster.’ (Advert in the Daily Express, 24 July 1962)

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Packaging wot talks

For a while now I’ve been intrigued by the way that packaging has started talking to us, addressing the consumer like a friend in the cause of a very modern business phenomenon: the brand that isn’t a brand, that can accumulate its millions by remaining cool and cuddly and non-corporate. Here are a few examples I’ve collected over the last few years:

‘A big hello from Jonty and Nick and all the Fryers at Burts. Do you like our new packs? We love them! They were inspired by the beautiful shoes of our friend Kate Cordle! But why animal prints? We wanted to highlight the awful business that is Palm Oil Cultivation in Borneo and the harm it is doing to Orangutans.’ (Burts crisps)

‘We’re delighted you’ve decided to treat yourself to the natural, healthy goodness of goats’ milk.’ (Delamere Dairy goats’ milk)

‘We developed this grease-proof pouch after a customer complained their Danish stuck to the napkin!’ (Pret a Manger Danish pastry)

‘It takes a steady hand to make a really good cappuccino. Just to be sure we weigh about one in three.’ (Pret a Manger coffee cup)

‘What is an innocent smoothie? Well, since you ask …’

‘Once opened consume within 4 days or we’ll come round and get you.’

‘We like talking: If you’re passing and you fancy a chat, we’re here at Fruit Towers …’

‘One portion of this smoothie will provide you with the same amount of antioxidants as your average 5 fruit and vegetables a day. But this doesn’t mean you’re excused from eating some nice veggies with your dinner tonight.’ (All the above seen on Innocent Smoothie bottles)

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The noblest prospect in the world, it has been well said, is London viewed from the suburbs on a clear winter’s evening. The stars are shining in the heavens, but there is another firmament spread out below, with its millions of bright lights glittering at our feet. Line after line sparkles, like the trails left by meteors, cutting and crossing one another till they are lost in the haze of the distance. Over the whole there hangs a livid cloud, bright as the monster city were in flames, and looking afar off like the sea by night, made phosphorescent by the million creatures dwelling within it.’ (Henry Mayhew, 1849)

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Decoding the decade

This piece by me appeared in the Guardian last Saturday:

I am pleased to announce that, after many years spent at the cutting edge of scientific discovery, I have finally mastered the art of time travel. I am not at liberty to say exactly how, but I managed to scramble through one of those wormholes in the space-time continuum and I’m actually writing this column in November 2039. We’ve got it all here in the future, you know: teleporting, thinking robots, space elevators. The only slightly disconcerting thing about the 2030s is seeing the decade I have just left behind being recycled as part of the nostalgia industry.

For instance, there is a chain of “noughties” theme pubs here, called Strictlys, where all the bar staff have to wear stick-on goatee beards and they play Coldplay on a loop. Then there are the digital retro parties, where everyone has a good laugh at those primitive iPhones we put up with in the 2000s, and we all wonder how on earth we got through the long winter evenings with only 200 TV channels. And you only have to see people getting wistful about when the whole family used to watch The X Factor on a Saturday night to realise what a strange and omnivorous human urge nostalgia is.

Not that remembering the 2000s is all about wallowing pleasurably in kitsch. The New-New Labour politicians of the 2030s have been falling over each other to distance themselves from their New Labour predecessors by constantly reciting the mantra, “We must never go back to the failed policies of the noughties.” Strangely, though, they don’t mean the unregulated financial system which caused the money markets to crash and turned the bankers into folk devils at the end of 2008. Instead, one moment of ignominy gets mentioned ad nauseam: the winter of discontent of 2009, when the intransigence of all those public sector workers who resisted market “modernisation” caused the worst recession in living memory. Everyone here remembers the noughties as the dark ages to which we must never return – rather like the 1970s in your day, in fact.

In short, we in 2039 are suffering from a nasty bout of what Ferdinand Mount, way back in 2006, called “decaditis”. This tendency to package decades as unified entities is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it takes a while for each decade to accumulate its own set of historical cliches. At the end of 2009, for instance, no one really knew what the noughties stood for. There were a few brave efforts at instant retrospectives, but people’s hearts weren’t really in it. Every one could see that the decade was just a series of contingent moments held together arbitrarily by the Gregorian calendar.

You may remember a similar thing happened with the 1970s, which took some time to become crystallised in popular mythology. In a book about the decade published in 1980, Christopher Booker referred to it as “a kind of long, rather dispiriting interlude”, a merely transitional era with no distinctive characteristics. We had to wait a few years before the 1970s assumed such symbolic importance in the now familiar Thatcherite narrative of postwar national decline and our failed experiment in social-democratic politics. The problem with this kind of decadology is that it treats the past as a cautionary tale in which the ending seems inevitable, and thus views our forebears as stupid or naïve for not seeing the writing on the wall. The 1970s, or the noughties, come to seem as distant and alien as Pompeii, with nothing to teach us except how much more enlightened we are today.

It isn’t read much in 2039 but there is a novel called 1984, in which the hero, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth rewriting old editions of The Times, casting the previous versions into the “memory hole”, a chute leading to an incinerator. What the author, George Orwell, failed to realise is that in the future there would be no need for such censorship, because of our insatiable appetite for decadology and its infinite capacity for inducing selective memory.

Every so often here, an older person might dimly recall something about “bankers’ bonuses” or “sub-prime mortgages”, and for a brief moment it acts like a Proustian madeleine, a secret corridor into a forgotten past, just like snatches of the song “Oranges and Lemons” do for Winston Smith in 1984. But mention these phrases to anyone under 40 and you might as well be speaking in Latin.

Admittedly, one or two maverick historians are starting to put together an alternative history of the noughties. They point out that the economic crisis at the end of the decade led to a brief questioning of market fundamentalism and its relentless pursuit of growth, consumption and speculation at all costs. But then the market fundamentalists fought back and managed to present their version of the future as the only form of progress, so that everyone who disagreed with them came to seem like a dinosaur. Personally, I don’t think this alternative version of the noughties will ever catch on. As some people were pointing out even back in 2009, decadology has very little to do with history.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

We have recommendations for you

As someone who regularly buys presents for children on Amazon, I am familiar with the vague feelings of 21st-century anomie attendant on receiving emails beginning ‘as someone who has expressed an interest in the Harry Potter interactive wand, we thought you would like to know …’ or ‘as someone who has enjoyed the High School Musical Annual 2009, you may also be interested in purchasing …’ Recently this email marketing campaign has taken a more troubling turn. I received today an email from the online retailer identifying me as ‘someone who has expressed an interest in male grooming’ and inviting me to purchase a number of items including the BaByliss for Men Automatic Stubble Rechargeable Grooming Tool and the David Beckham Intimately for Men Gift Set containing Eau de Toilette and Body Wash, at the allegedly tempting discounted price of £17.99.

Reader, if you could see me as I type this you would immediately realise what has thus far escaped the Amazonians, which is that I have absolutely no interest in male grooming. There may be a small number of things in this world I am less interested in than male grooming – the properties of belly-button lint, the insides of an internal combustion engine, the love lives of the cast members of Hollyoaks etc. – but suffice it to say that the list is not long. I cannot imagine why Amazon thinks otherwise. I think I did once buy a replacement foil for an electric razor from them, but I hardly think this qualifies me as a Beau Brummell for the noughties. Perhaps they are confusing me with the Joe Moran who is the Brad Pitt of the Cornish Coast (see elsewhere on this blog, passim).

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The post is fat with appeals and bargains. Too much to support, too multitudinous to purchase, their computerized headings address me intimately. But I am not to be bought by their matiness. Soon their oral squeals will be on the telephone. “Good morning, Mr Blythe, my name is Joanne and I want to interest you in our Windows and Doors.” The young voice quakes momentarily as it braces itself for rudeness. No thank you, Joanne. Politeness costs nothing, as mother said, though it isn’t quite true when it comes to Windows and Doors.’ – Ronald Blythe

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Toast to a pint-sized polymorph

Another one from the bottom drawer. I wrote this little cultural history of the beer glass for one of those two-part supplements they have in the Saturday Guardian and Observer (this one was on summer pubs).

Most drinkers probably think of their beer glass as a fairly functional object, designed mainly to convey the liquid on its important journey from the pub table to their mouths. But you can’t separate the history of beer from the history of the beer glass.

Until the end of the Victorian era, pub-goers mostly drank out of pewter tankards, which hid the bits of sediment that used to float around in their beer. Then two things happened: dingy pubs began to be better lit, and modern filtration methods started to produce a clearer drink. As newly enlightened drinkers took more notice of the clarity of their pint, the modern beer glass was born.

The first mass-produced beer glass – the 10-sided, handled pint mug – arrived with the consolidation of the brewing industry in the 1920s, and became famous when the Brewers’ Society used it in its “beer is best” adverts in the 1930s. But after the war, it was nudged out by the dimpled beer mug, made of thick glass patterned with indentations, resembling a hand grenade. This design change fitted in with changing drinking habits: dark mild had acquired an unfashionable image as an old working-class man’s drink, and its substitute, amber bitter, looks lovely in the refracted light of a dimpled glass.

Then, in the 1960s, the dimpled mug went into a long, terminal decline because (or so the brewers told us) drinkers preferred a lighter, straighter glass. The invention of a new type of glass, with a bulge about an inch from the top, also solved the perennial problem of straight glasses – their propensity to chip near the rim when being washed together. This was the Nonik (no nick) glass.

The straight/dimpled glass distinction is shrouded in mythology. I have heard northerners claim the dimpled glass as a southern affectation – southerners presumably being too soft to get their whole hand round a glass – and I have heard southerners claim it is quirkily northern, perhaps unconsciously influenced by the scene in the 1971 film Get Carter, when London hard man Michael Caine asks for a pint of bitter in a Newcastle pub “in a thin glass”.

A more interesting question is why there have been so few beer glass types in Britain, when the Germans and Belgians, for instance, have countless branded glasses for every type of drink. In George Orwell’s (non-existent) ideal pub, The Moon Under Water, he noted approvingly that they “never make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass”. Along with glass and pewter mugs, they had some of the strawberry-pink china pots that practically died out after the first world war. While grudgingly acknowledging that this was because most people like to see their drink, Orwell declared that “beer tastes better out of china”.

Beer glass innovations have generally been propelled by the brewing industry. In the 1960s, for example, there were various proprietary moulds used by keg beer manufacturers such as Worthington E and Watneys Red Barrel in an effort to create a national brand image. Oddly shaped glasses thus came to be linked, in the minds of real ale purists, with the theme pubs and fizzy pap that brewers were trying to foist on them. Another factor is that the British drinker likes be served a full pint, and this is easier to calibrate in a no-frills glass. Only in Britain, one feels, would you have the slightly bigger “pint to line” glasses so popular at beer festivals and in cask ale pubs.

But no one can agree about how the shape of the glass impacts on the most important thing: taste. Some say a thin glass is better because the temperature of the beer rises more slowly in it; others say a thick glass and handle are preferable because the hand doesn’t warm the beer. And Orwell swore that beer tasted better out of china. But good luck with finding a pub that will still serve you a pint of bitter in a china mug.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Family Britain

I was delighted to be sent an advance copy of David Kynaston’s Family Britain 1951-1957, the latest volume of his magisterial survey of Britain in the post-war, pre-Thatcher years – although I would have bought it anyway, because the first volume, Austerity Britain, was my favourite book of 2007. Like its predecessor, Family Britain offers some beautifully thick and humane descriptions of everyday life from our recent past. How can you not like a book that manages to turn the memoirs of Noddy Holder into a rich historical archive? Every so often Kynaston interrupts the narrative with these wonderfully evocative lists:

Dabitoff, Windolene, Dura-glit, Brasso, Brillo, Rinso, Lifebuoy, Silvikrin, Amm-i-dent, Delrosa Rose Hip Syrup, Mr Therm, Put-U-Up, Toni Perms, hair-nets, head-scarves, Jaeger, Ladybird T-shirts, rompers, knicker elastic, cycle clips, brogues, Clark's sandals, Start-rite (that haunting rear view of two small children setting out on life's path, Moss Bros, tweed jackets, crests on blazers, ties as ID, saluting AA patrolmen, driving gloves, Austin Cambridge, Morris Oxford, Sunbeam Talbot, starting handles, indicator wings, Triumph, Norton, sidecars, Raleigh, Sturmey-Archer, trolley-buses, Green Line, I-Spy, Hornby Dublo, Tri-ang, Dinky, Meccano, Scalextric, Subbuteo, Sarah Jane dolls, Plasticine, Magic Robot, jumping jacks, cap guns, Capstans, Player’s Navy Cut, Senior Service, Passing Clouds, cigarette boxes, Dagenham Girl Pipers, Saturday-morning cinema, Uncle Mac, Nellie the Elephant, The Laughing Policeman, fountain pens, Quink, napkin rings, butter knives, vol-au-vents, Brown Windsor soup, sponge cakes, Welgar Shredded Wheat, Garibaldis (squashed flies), Carnation, Edam, eat up your greens, Sun-Pat, Marmite sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, semolina, shape, sucking oranges through sugar cubes, Tizer, Quosh, Kia-ora Suncrush, dandelion and burdock, Tom Thumb drops, Sherbert Fountains, Spangles, Trebor Chews, barley twists, blackjacks, fruit salads, aniseed balls, pineapple chunks, Big Chief Dream Pipe, flying saucers, traffic-light lollipops, gobstoppers …

I wonder what a similar list from the noughties would look like:

Activia single pots, Jamie Oliver, Strictly Come Dancing, The X Factor, Kettle Chips, Innocent Smoothies, KFC Bargain Buckets, goatee beards, low-slung jeans, Ugg boots, peasant skirts, iTunes, Amazon, Boden clothes, beanie hats, Who Do You Think You Are, iPlayer, Twitter, wristbands, full-zip hoodies, Caffe Nero, farmers’ markets, 3 for 2s at Waterstone’s, Radio 2, Cath Kidston tents, VW Kombi camper vans, Nintendo Wii, Doctor Who, High School Musical, Festivals, carveries, Top Gear, Ant and Dec, misery memoirs …

No, it doesn’t really work.

Mundane quote for the day:
‘May you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.’ – Philip Larkin, ‘Born Yesterday’

Thursday, 5 November 2009

English roundabout

Here is a little piece I did for the FT about the British reinvention of the roundabout. Limitations of space prevented me from mentioning the classic song by XTC, 'English Roundabout', allegedly inspired by the magic roundabout in the band’s hometown of Swindon: ‘And all the horns go “beep! beep!” / All the people follow like sheep … I have had enough, / I just want to get out / Let me off o’ this English roundabout’.

The traffic roundabout first arrived in Paris and New York in the 1900s. Britain was a late developer, only getting round to building its first one at Hyde Park Corner in 1926. But these early “traffic circles” were fairly anarchic. The constant weaving of cars caused frequent hold-ups and accidents, and in heavy traffic they would clog up completely.

Then, in 1966, the British unleashed the full potential of the roundabout: a new law stipulated that vehicles approaching the roundabout had to give way to traffic already on it. The Road Research Laboratory near Slough conducted a series of studies of traffic flow at roundabouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s that made the British the leading authorities in the field. One of the fruits of this research was a uniquely British invention: the mini-roundabout, which began to appear on roads in 1967, and which greatly increased traffic capacity at smaller junctions.

The case for roundabouts soon became compelling. They cut out unnecessary delays and so were less congested than junctions with traffic lights, and they eliminated one of the most dangerous turning movements: right or left into oncoming traffic, with the potential for lethal side-on impacts. The roundabout with offside priority became one of Britain’s most successful international exports – at one point in the 1990s, France was building them at a rate of about a thousand a year.

It seems odd, then, that the roundabout has become the bête noire of the British motorist in a way that traffic lights have not. Perhaps this is because it is the landscape feature most associated with new towns such as Milton Keynes, which are often unfairly dismissed as boring and soulless. There is even an urban myth that car tyres wear out quicker in Milton Keynes than anywhere else in the country because locals drive round the roundabouts too fast. New towns are a traffic engineer’s dream: they can start from scratch without worrying about property lines or existing road layouts. So naturally the traffic engineer with a blank canvas builds the safest form of traffic junction: the roundabout.


The Argleton story is moving fast. My dad found this in an old Francoist newspaper, ABC, which he reads to improve his Spanish:

La principal teoría al respecto es que Argleton fue añadida deliberadamente al mapa para rastrear con mayor eficiencia a compañías que copian los datos de los mapas violando los términos de copyright. "Puede ser un error deliberado para que la gente no copie los mapas. A veces se colocan calles ficticias en los mapas para que no sean robados, pero nunca lo había visto en Google Maps", concluyó Joe Moran, académico de la Universidad John Moores.

I didn’t realise I was so fluent.

Monday, 2 November 2009

I remember Argleton

Argleton, the place not far from here that exists on Google maps and nowhere else and on which I have blogged before, has now come to the attention of the national media:

I did explain to the nice reporter from the Telegraph that all I knew about Argleton I had gleaned from Roy Bayfield’s intrepid explorations in the badlands north of Liverpool on his blog ( Still she managed to spatchcock my inane musings on the matter into an uninformative but not too embarrassing quote. Strangely, my more esoteric references to Alberto Manguel’s classic Dictionary of Imaginary Places failed to make the cut. I note that I am described as a ‘map expert’, which I am sure will delight real map experts everywhere.

Apparently there is now a ‘Save Argleton’ campaign gathering pace on the net. Tell me where the barricades are and I’m there …

Martin Wainwright, who already gets maximum respect from this blog’s posse for writing a biography of the Morris Minor, has just published a book about my neck of the woods, True North: In Praise of England’s Better Half, which I’m enjoying. There is no mention of Argleton but plenty of good stuff about beef dripping and fish’n’chip shops. I liked the account of his Uncle Chris, a vicar in Bradford who explains why people there never take their overcoats off: ‘If it isn’t raining, it soon will be,’ he says. Wainwright also has a blog on the book ( which is well worth a look, as is his intriguingly titled partner blog Martin’s Moths (, which sadly now seems to be hibernating.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Hole in the wall

Another one of our occasional posts from this blog’s television critic. I have just been watching a programme on BBC1 called Hole in the Wall. The premise is easily explained. Celebrities take it in turns to face an oncoming wall in which there is a hole in the shape of a contorted human. Before the wall arrives, the celebrity has to contort him/herself into the shape. If s/he succeeds, s/he goes through the hole and the audience cheers. If s/he doesn’t, s/he crashes into the wall and it knocks him/her into a pool of water.

The interesting, or arguably uninteresting, thing about this programme is that it is completely lacking in any sort of narrative arc. All the other programmes on Saturday night are a gift for a narratologist: with their judges’ scores, audience votes and dance-offs/sing-offs, they are all crisis, crescendo and narrative resolution. But Hole in the Wall is different. It’s just celebrities going through these differently-shaped holes in the wall, again and again and again. Of course, they try and dress it up as a half-hour programme by splitting the celebrities into teams, awarding them points and employing minor variations on the same theme, like having two people go through the hole at the same time. But they’re not fooling me. Hole in the Wall is the groundhog day of Saturday evening light entertainment.

It’s apparently the second series, so someone must like it.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defence of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic … The bore is stronger and more joyous than we are; he is a demi-god – nay, he is a god. For it is the gods who do not tire of the iteration of things; to them the nightfall is always new, and the last rose as red as the first.’ – G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Happy birthday M1

In spite of everything … happy birthday M1. Wishing you 50 giant candles lit along the crash barriers, light jams and pleasant widenings (or unwidenings, if any road protestors are reading this). I have a cough and a spit in this documentary, M1 Magic, which was on Radio 4 earlier today:

Not that I will be listening myself. Lord Reith once said that only those with ‘a claim to be heard above their fellows’ were worthy of appearing on the BBC. God knows what he would have made of me.

Here is an ode to the M1, inspired partly (I think) by my book:

And a postscript to my earlier post about Richard Hoggart. Penguin has just republished The Uses of Literacy, with an excellent introduction by Lynsey Hanley. There is also a foreword by Simon Hoggart in which he refers to his father’s appearance for Penguin in the famous obscenity trial over Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

‘Penguin asked Dad to write the introduction to the first “legal” edition, and his name is still preserved on the Penguin tea mug of the title. He was paid a flat £50 fee, a fact which rankled slightly when sales rose to £3 million – though as we pointed out to him, not one person bought it for the introduction.’

Hoggart Jr. offers no hard evidence for this assertion. It might even be what Karl Popper would have called ‘unfalsifiable’. But I think he’s on pretty safe ground.

And here are the first few lines of David Hendy’s Life on Air: A History of Radio Four, which I’m currently reading:

‘In May 1988 an elderly woman caught a bus from Blackpool to London, marched into Broadcasting House, pulled a revolver from her handbag, and shot at a BBC commissionaire standing in the reception. Her gun turned out to be a replica and her bullets turned out to be blanks. No one was hurt. But it was the cause of her complaint that struck many observers as most worthy of comment: she had been driven to violence, so she said, by her inability to receive Radio Four.’

Needless to say, I’m already hooked.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Great bus journeys of the world

They’ve been resurfacing the road outside my place of work this week, which means that no one can get in the car park. Everyone has been asking me, presumably because they think I am the oracle on all things asphalt-related, how long it takes to tarmac a road. To which the only sensible answers are a) how the hell should I know, and b) please feel free to read my book, which more than exhausts my expertise on this topic. So I have been getting the bus to work this week – the famous no. 82 taken by George Harrison and Paul McCartney when they went to school at the Liverpool Institute, the remains of which are across the road from our building.

In Harold Evans’s new book, My Paper Chase, there is a memorable image of him as a young cub reporter, reading Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War on the top deck of a bus from Oldham to Ashton-under-Lyne, quite near to where I was brought up. It made me wonder how much autodidacticism has occurred on buses throughout human history, how many great deeds and works have been conceived and perhaps even written on them. This is a piece I wrote a while ago for the Guardian about buses:

No change please: Bus routes matter far beyond the timetables. They capture a kind of invisible social evolution

According to a rather cheering statistic in the latest edition of Social Trends, 96% of Britons live within 13 minutes' walk of a bus stop. When the 1985 Transport Act deregulated services outside London, many predicted that the privatised companies would simply abandon unprofitable routes. In fact, this hasn't happened.

The service may be terrible; bus use may be static or falling everywhere apart from London; and two-thirds of respondents to a recent British Social Attitudes survey may have agreed with the statement: "I would only travel somewhere by bus if I had no other way of getting there"; but whether through local authority intervention or the inertia of habit, the old routes largely remain as an invisible constant in local life.

In the 70s, Milton Keynes came up with the perfect solution to the dispersed layout of the new city: a "dial-a-bus" service that would allow people to divert bus drivers to pick them up. But it never really worked. A bus route needs to be unchanging. Buses are the poor relations of urban transport partly because of this necessary communality, which is an affront to the ideal of individual consumer freedom that has dominated public life since the 50s, when bus use began to decline. A bus forces passengers into fixed timetables and designated routes. That is their point.

Of course, it's easy for me to say that. I can smugly point out that my journey to work is along an illustrious bus route - the 82 from Speke to Liverpool city centre, the number and itinerary of which has not changed since George Harrison and Paul McCartney met on it in the early 50s. McCartney later claimed that this daily bus ride formed the inspiration for part of the Beatles' song A Day in the Life, the bit where he makes the bus in seconds flat and goes upstairs to have a smoke - which still happens occasionally on the 82, despite the no-smoking signs.

Unlike McCartney's childhood home, the 82 is unlikely to be preserved for the nation by the National Trust. But it has found a modern-day Pevsner in the form of the photographer Tom Wood, who has been pointing his camera out of Liverpool bus windows since 1979. The project, inspired by his daily commute, consists of more than 100,000 photos. What I like about his work is the contrast between all these unnamed people, absent-mindedly following their routines day after day, and the tiny changes in the urban environment. Undying bus routes are perfect for capturing this kind of invisible social evolution.

Bus routes are no respecters of the boosterism of urban regeneration, with its talk of "flagship developments" and "strategic gateways". The routes simply go where the passengers are, connecting the tarted-up areas of city centres with more marginal, insalubrious spaces. It is no coincidence that rioters in Lille and Strasbourg in the late 90s targeted buses that linked the banlieues to the city centre. A social worker observed: "If you live at the end of the bus route, the bus becomes a symbol of the life and wealth of the city you can't afford to enjoy."

But the bus route is also an intangible network that is a source of continuity and connection for its initiates. In the 90s, the sociologists Ian Taylor, Karen Evans and Penny Fraser encountered an extraordinarily sophisticated "local bus knowledge" in Manchester and Sheffield - not just about timetables and routes but "a more abstract, aesthetic assessment of the city as a set of places seen from the bus and now connected up in the memory". The lesson of the bus route is that history is uneven. With our eyes on the zeitgeist, we forget that historical change can also be slow and incremental. Headlines come and go; the bus route meanders on.

A belated but nice piece about my book from the Sunday Herald:

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

How to spend it

A Grohe chrome Rainshower Icon shower head, £113. A Linley silk chenille Mynah cushion, £175. A sparrow and finch Claridges bird house with cedar roof, £249.95. A mid-nineteenth-century terrestrial library globe by John Cary, £75,000. A violin by Antonio Stradivari (price withheld).

All these tempting offers are contained in a colour supplement that comes with the Financial Times on Saturdays, called ‘How To Spend It’. It made me feel a bit like a street urchin with my face pressed up against the window of a cake shop – except I don’t actually want any of these things,* and I do want cake. Anyway, it makes edifying reading for those naive souls, like myself, who were labouring under the misapprehension that we’re in the middle of a recession.

How to spend it? How to spend what? If someone would like to give me it, I’d be delighted to spend it – and I wouldn’t need a magazine to tell me how.

The BBC has just launched a brilliant online archive of old programmes, where I was slightly discombobulated to discover a programme I appeared on, called White Van Man Speaks ( Not sure what I think about being in an archive, especially as it feels like I did it a few months back and it turns out it was four years ago. Ah, those long, lost days of 2005, when you could buy a Linley silk chenille Mynah cushion with £170, and still have change for your bus fare and a bag of chips on the way home …

*Oh go on then, I’ll have the Stradivarius if you insist.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Suburbia: the list

To coincide with a new exhibition at the London Transport Museum (, the Financial Times asked me to come up with the five best things to come out of suburbia for a feature it runs on Saturdays called “The List”. I’m not sure if these are really the best things, but they are five really good things I could come up with when a next-day deadline was looming.

1. The semi-detached house

Few people had a good word to say about mock Tudor houses when they were built in the inter-war years. George Orwell called them “semi-detached torture chambers” and cartoonist Osbert Lancaster christened their style “bypass variegated” because so many of them were built along new arterial roads. But nowadays the suburban semi is one of the most prized houses in the market. Despite their reputation for uniformity, these early suburban homes are much more varied than today’s identikit versions. In 1930, four-fifths of housebuilders had fewer than ten employees and each firm built only a few houses each year, ensuring idiosyncratic designs.

2. John Betjeman

Brought up in Highgate, Betjeman is the poet laureate of suburbia – especially of “Metroland”, the area of northwest London served by the Metropolitan line, and the subject of his celebrated 1973 television documentary. Perhaps his loveliest poem about suburbia is “A Subaltern’s Love Song”, a paean to a young Surrey woman called Joan Hunter Dunn and her world of “the six-o'clock news and a lime-juice and gin” and golf club dances in leafy Camberley with its “mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells”.

3. The great British sitcom

Suburbia is the natural home of the British sitcom, offering endless scope for its theme of being trapped in a mundane environment. In The Good Life (1975-78), Tom and Barbara Good dig up their back garden to become self-sufficient in Surbiton; in Butterflies (1978-83) housewife Ria (Wendy Craig) is stuck in what she calls “a hut in a suburban jungle with dust delivered daily”. For a darker view, Ever Decreasing Circles is a much underrated sitcom (1984-89), with Richard Briers as a man driven demented by his responsibilities on the residents’ committee.

4. Pop music

Suburbia, according to cultural critic Michael Bracewell, is “the spiritual home of English pop”. It is something to kick against, subjected to the punkish derision of The Members (“The Sound of the Suburbs”, 1979) or Hard-Fi’s current songs about dead-end life in Staines. But youth boredom turns satellite towns into hubs of creativity: to make sense of the surrealism of David Bowie, the social anger of the Jam or the anthemic sound of Suede it helps to know where they came from: Bromley, Woking and Haywards Heath.

5. J.G. Ballard

From 1960 until his death this year, J.G. Ballard lived in the west London suburb of Shepperton. A few years after he moved there, it began to be hemmed in by the M3 and Heathrow airport. “The twentieth century at last arrived,” Ballard wrote approvingly, “and began to transform the Thames Valley into a pleasing replica of Los Angeles, with all the ambiguous but heady charms of alienation and anonymity.” In his fiction, he depicted this new world as an antidote to the British obsession with nostalgia and preservation.

Feel free to add to the list …

Mundane quote for the day: ‘One day perhaps a Dickens of the suburbs will arise, to immortalize the life and language of suburbia. His task will be to portray individual character and idiosyncrasy similarly emerging from today’s most typical setting; and also, like Dickens, to publicize abuses: the exploitation of the innocent suburban householder by Building Societies and speculative builders, and the loneliness of the housewife marooned at the end of the newest road in the spreadeagled building estate. But, as Dickens proves so well, only someone who first discovers for himself, through his own affection for it, the peculiar virtues of the world in which he is interested, can fairly isolate its vices … These elusive territories – now the heart of England – past which we unobservantly speed in motor cars and trains and over whose roof-dappled greenery we may all soon be cruising in aeroplanes, will no longer be a strange unknown country.’ - J.M. Richards, The Castles on the Ground, 1946

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Society for Unread Authors, continued

I have written before on these pages about the Society for Unread Authors. I published this article in the Guardian yesterday, with the aim of raising public awareness of this shamefully overlooked social problem. Hopefully it will give much needed publicity to SUA and the important work it does – assuming anyone read the article, of course.


My Society for Unread Authors aims to help all those whose books are destined to be ignored

This is a column with a mission. I am here to tell you about the vital philanthropic work I do as chief executive of the registered charity SUA: the Society for Unread Authors. SUA offers support to all those writers who are left impoverished and traumatised by failing to acquire a readership.

The statistics make depressing reading. According to Unesco, about 200,000 books are published in the UK each year, more per capita than any other country. Perversely, Unesco seems to regard the quantity of books produced by a country as a sign of literacy and general cultural enlightenment. But the sad fact is that there are too many authors and not enough readers. Most of these books will be read by no one at all before they are shredded or disappear into library vaults, never to be recalled again.

This is a particularly difficult time for unread authors as more books than ever are being published in the run-up to Christmas: 800 appeared on a single day, 1 October, or "Super Thursday". Our unread books are being buried under a cacophonous pile of discounted Dan Browns and autobiographies by Ant & Dec. The situation is now so dire that even books by bona fide celebrities are remaining unread. We count many of them among our members.

At the moment our work consists mainly of getting our members to read each other's books, so they will no longer be unread. I am currently ploughing through a history of steam traction engines in Rutland. It's a bit of a chore, but if I can struggle through to the end it will be worth it just to see the poor author's face light up as he learns that he has at last acquired a reader. The trouble is that this is all a drop in the ocean. We just do not have the resources at SUA to read even a fraction of all the unread books in the world.

That is why the society is applying for lottery funding to expand its operations in two ways. Our first strategy is to incentivise the non-readers, those absent-minded creatures who buy lots of books, with every good intention, and never get round to reading them. Of course, these are not bad people; they just have other things on their minds. Some of them are busy writing their own, soon to be unread books. Certain members of my organisation think we should pay these people an hourly rate to read our books. But I think this is just throwing money at the problem without tackling the underlying causes. Instead we need to employ a team of fulltime reader enforcers, who would go into people's homes, point out the unread books on their shelves, set daily reading targets and ensure they are being met.

Our second proposal is more radical. What we clearly have is a word mountain, a pile of unread verbiage every bit as shamefully wasteful as that EU grain mountain we heard so much about in the bad old days of the unreformed common agricultural policy. So we propose a similar solution to the one the EU used to tackle the grain mountain: set aside. Just as many farmers have to set aside a proportion of their land and leave it fallow, certain books would have to remain unpublished for a few years to give the unread books a chance.

To make things fair, SUA has developed a computer program which has generated a random list of books that would have to be set aside. The list includes any book in which the following words appear on the cover: The Little Book Of, Loose Women, Cosmic Ordering, Angels, High School Musical, Jeremy Kyle. I know many people will be dismayed that this list will deprive us of so many fine books that would enrich our cultural life. But in the interests of the mental wellbeing of our members, we at the society regard this high price as just about worth paying.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Time and the trivial

Last week, because I couldn’t face doing anything else and my mum said she enjoyed watching it while she was ironing, I watched a programme on Channel 4 called Come Dine with Me. In this programme, five strangers take it in turns to host a dinner party for each other, and then award each other marks out of ten for their efforts. I will leave any discussion of the programme’s content to the professionals. I would simply like to point out that this show was TWO AND A HALF HOURS LONG. That is longer than The Seventh Seal, any one of Kiesloswki’s Three Colours films, Citizen Kane, Jean de Florette, It’s a Wonderful Life etc. Even with that self-indulgent ending, Apocalypse Now is only three minutes longer. That evening, I decided to skip Strictly Come Dancing, because I didn’t feel I could commit a whole TWO AND A QUARTER HOURS of the time I have left on this earth to it. I do not believe, like RH Tawney, that ‘triviality is more dangerous to the soul than wickedness’. But it does seem to me that the trivial is making increasingly unreasonable demands on our time and attention.

To pad out this meagre post, here are a few more silly pomes for assorted sprogs:

An especially helpful anteater
Would supply you with beer by the litre.
Or glasses of stout
Which he poured through his snout -
He really could not have been sweeter.

A lucky old hamster called Neil
Would trundle all day on his wheel,
And get crumpets and tea
And lettuce for free
Which he thought was a brilliant deal.

A fussy young tortoise called Rita
Would only eat cheese on Ryvita,
A diet so bizarre
She became a big star
And was given a badge on Blue Peter.

There was a headteacher from Stroud,
Whose voice was incredibly loud.
So her morning assembly
Was delivered at Wembley
To a not-quite-fanatical crowd.

MUNDANE QUOTE FOR THE DAY: ‘Another heavy snowfall – the third already this winter and the papers are full of articles about The New Ice Age’ (Michael Palin’s diary, 8 January 1982).

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Plus ca change ...

From the Daily Mirror, 7 July 1962:


The first transatlantic TV picture – bounced off a Space satellite – may be seen by viewers in Britain on Tuesday night.

But Britain’s contribution to this “International TV Spectacular” may spark off a king-sized rumpus.

For the joint BBC-ITV planners of the British end of the programme – to be transmitted via the American satellite Telstar, due to be launched from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday – hope to show our National Health Service in action.

But many American organisations are violently opposed to any form of national health service. The powerful American Medical Association, for one, is not likely to take kindly to a “plug” for Britain’s health service on such a historic occasion.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

A rainbow on the bypass

As you may have gathered by now, I like stories that reveal the exotic in the mundane.

Like this one about the Kingston bypass, opened in the mid-1920s as Britain’s first dual carriageway. For a time it basked in the reflected glamour of the jazz age. ‘Give me the Kingston By-Pass on a Saturday afternoon’, sang Noel Coward in one of his less sparkling lyrics. Travelling on these fast new roads seemed like a new way of seeing the world. Driving on the Kingston bypass in the 1920s, the writer Wickham Steed was convinced he had driven under a rainbow spanning the road in a perfect semicircle: ‘I ran slowly through it, in a strange greenish-yellow light with a ruddy tinge, for about 100 yards, and left it behind.’ Another writer, C.J.P. Cave, pointed out that driving through a rainbow was as impossible as jumping over one’s shadow: ‘Most unfortunately a rainbow is an affair of refraction and reflection from raindrops, and its centre must always be opposite to the sun’. Despite all the scientific evidence that a rainbow simply runs away from us when we approach it, Steed was insistent. He had driven through a rainbow in the manner of Shelley’s cloud marching through the ‘triumphal arch’ of the ‘million-coloured bow’ along with ‘hurricane, fire and snow’.

A couple more pieces by me from the FT:

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Each time the doors sighed open at a lighted station they let in a gust of subterranean wind. It tasted metallic, of burned carbons and newsprint – a warm, industrial mistral, as particular to the city as Big Ben or red buses, quite different from the rotting vegetable odour of the New York subway or the reek of Gauloises in the Paris Metro. Everyone aboard the carriage had mastered the trick of looking as if they were alone in an empty room. Everyone was travelling under sealed orders to a separate destination. In a fleeting conceit, I saw us all as members of the Underground, moving in secret through Occupied London, and for the first time on the trip, the city felt like home again.’ (Jonathan Raban, Coasting)

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The dullest map square in Britain

According to Mike Parker, author of the recent book Map Addict, the most boring 1x1km map square out of the 320,000 on the 1:50,000 Landranger series is SE 8322, just south of Ousefleet, between Goole and Hull. Here it is on the OS website:

‘On the map,’ Parker writes, ‘it contains absolutely nothing, save for a pylon line grazing one corner. In the flesh, it is one of those big-sky wildernesses that leave you feeling inches high, a land of ploughed black clods, mist and crows.’

I read quite a lot about maps for the book on roads, and ended up using hardly any of it. All maps betray the prejudices and blind spots of their creators. Early maps of uncharted territories were works of art and imagination as much as science, with drawings of monsters, dragons and pygmies substituting for topographical detail. Or as Jonathan Swift put: ‘So Geographers in Afric' maps / With savage pictures fill their gaps / And o’er uninhabitable downs / Place elephants for want of towns.’ Francis Galton (the man who devised the first weather map in The Times in 1875) also drew a beauty map of Britain which claimed to map the attractiveness of its female inhabitants. London contained the prettiest, Aberdeen the ugliest.

This has also put me in mind of the artist Richard Dedomenici’s work, ‘Nail Salon Belt’, which ‘discovers’ a nail salon belt surrounding London which is protecting its satellite towns from metropolitan encroachment:

And I also liked this visit to an imaginary place, Argleton, which you can find on Google maps but nowhere else:

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

No need to reply

I wrote this article, ‘Today's cultish interactivity is a poor substitute for a proper public sphere’, for the Guardian earlier this month:

When historians draw a line around the first decade of this century, they will measure the traffic in text messages, wade through the “have your say” sections on online newspapers, and count the membership of social networking sites - and they will surely conclude that this has been the dawning of the age of interactivity. Never before have those with media and political power professed themselves to be so interested in our opinions; never before have we been able to pass on our thoughts so instantly to “friends” and “followers”, who may of course be total strangers. This isn’t simply a technological revolution. It is a cultural and emotional one, underpinned by a belief that constantly interacting with others is an inherently worthwhile activity. The owner of this year’s steepest adoption curve, Twitter, is interactivity in its purest form - “what I am doing now” condensed into a text message.

Ten years ago, when the internet was virtually steam-powered, the American academic John Durham Peters wrote a prophetic book called Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Peters argued that the ideal of interactivity, the search for instantaneous contact with others, had a long and fraught history in western culture. He traced it back to St Augustine, for whom the epitome of perfect communication was the angel, a word derived from the Greek for “messenger”. Unlike us flawed mortals, who might be prone to heretical interpretations of the Bible if left to read it on our own and use our unreliable brains, angels could intuit the will of God directly and communicate it to others instantly.

The aim of modern media, Peters argued, has been to “mimic the angels by mechanical or electronic means”. In the 19th century new inventions like telegraphy, the telephone and the phonograph had a near-mystical aura. They were linked in the public mind with the Victorian vogue for mesmerism and telepathy, because they too seemed to fulfil the dream of angelic contact, of pure and direct communication, of breaking down the painful distance between self and other. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” cautioned Henry Thoreau in Walden, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing to communicate.” We behaved, Thoreau wrote, “as if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly”. Today’s frantically texting, micro-blogging culture seems to be part of this long and futile search for shared consciousness. The boast of the social networking sites is that they will allow us to “stay connected” wherever we are, to defeat our tiresome physical and psychological distance from each other through technology.

It isn’t only in cyberspace. In real public spaces the people who run our lives are forever trying to converse with us, in a highly colloquial, intimate tone which has none of the formality we used to associate with official communications. The writer and humorist Paul Jennings once wrote about how angry his father used to get at the words printed on his ration book: “Your ration book”. “Whose do they suppose I think it is if it’s got my name on it?” he would say. These days he would be angry all the time - at those nagging dot-matrix display boards on motorways (“Have you got enough fuel?”), the sign at the head of the queue in my local bank that says “Nearly there: thanks for waiting”, and the faux-matey copy printed on crisp packets and smoothie bottles, saying things like “We think this flavour rocks” or “Once opened consume within four days or we’ll come round and get you”.

As someone who makes a living out of teaching and writing, I do find the idea of interactivity appealing. If only I could commune with others instantly, I would never again endure the pain of being unread, ignored or misunderstood. How I would love to be one of Star Trek’s Vulcans, those modern versions of Augustine’s angels who can meld their minds with others; then, instead of struggling over this article, I could simply tip the contents of my brain into yours.

But part of me also feels that there is something control-freakish about the desire for perfectly reciprocal communication. It takes too little account of human individuality and uniqueness. “Billions of consciousnesses silt history full, and every one of them the centre of the universe,” wrote the late John Updike in his memoirs. “What can we do in the face of this unthinkable truth but scream or take refuge in God?” We could spend our whole lives texting but there will always be part of us that is infinitely remote.

I wonder if one reason that so much discussion on the blogosphere deteriorates into the humourless taking and giving of offence is that people assume the words printed on the screen are aimed at them personally. In a culture which values interactivity, it makes a sort of sense to treat every form of communication like a text message. But not every public statement requires, or merits, a response. All language is a leap into the dark, with no certainty that we will ever be understood or even heard. Books get remaindered, blogs remain unread, and tweets fall on deaf ears. If it were easy to interact with others, no great literature would ever be written. Shakespeare’s sonnets are unsent letters, addressed to unnamed and shadowy people, or simply spoken into the air and to eternity.

I am not denying that online interaction brings pleasure and convenience to millions, and occasionally to me. What makes me uneasy is the cult of interactivity as an end in itself, the pursuit of better bandwidth as the route to a more liberated, democratic public sphere in which everyone will be instantly available to everyone else. In reality, as Peters argued, we only want that kind of intimate contact with family and friends. In more public contexts, such as the marketplace or the workplace, we often just want to be treated fairly and justly, the same as everyone else - which means impersonally and anonymously.

A proper public sphere is collectively owned and more than the sum total of lots of individual interactions. Why do so many of us love the strange poetry of the shipping forecast? Perhaps because it adheres to the literal sense of the word “broadcast”, which radio borrowed from the farmer’s term for scattering seeds over a wide surface. The shipping forecast is broadcast to millions of people who, since they are not on ships, are not its intended audience. For them it has become a comforting, collective ritual which simply forms part of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “cumulative intelligence of the universe”. It does not invite us to email or text our feedback; it does not care what any of us think as individuals. And so it belongs to us all.