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)