Saturday, 27 February 2010

My celebrity life

I’m appearing at the Bath Festival of Literature on Tuesday evening, talking about On Roads. I will of course be insisting on my usual backstage riders: gardenias and lilies in my dressing room, thrice-chilled beer, bowls of M&Ms with all the brown ones taken out etc., etc.

Actually, it is the first literary festival I have ever attended and I am a bit worried that, since there is an admission charge of £5/£7, no one will turn up. There will also be a ‘book signing’, which I guess will only take place if there is someone there with a book of mine they want me to sign – an eventuality that seems worryingly out of my control. Oh well, I suppose the organisers know what they’re doing. If anyone reading this is near Bath on Tuesday and fancies coming along, it’s at 6.15pm in the Guildhall.

The irony is that, even if no one turns up, it will probably still count as part of a Research Excellence Framework pilot case study currently being prepared about the social and economic ‘impact’ of my research. More of what Max Weber called the parcelling out of the soul, in other words.

I loved this account by the legendary American film critic Roger Ebert of an eccentric London hotel facing demolition:

Mundane quote for the day: ‘As the sun sinks, its light is not steadily withdrawn, but subject to a scattering by the air and dust of the atmosphere. For a short period, this creates a strange, faint flaring of the air, an oblique blaze in things … There are different twilights at different times of the year, with the longest, most luminous diminuendi of light taking place on Northern summer evenings. Yet there is a special, defining kind of strangeness in autumn twilights, where the “burnt-out ends of smoky days” seem to breathe in time with the ebbing year … Perhaps the particular resonance of the twilight state, of that which simultaneously wanes and remains, has also to do with our habituation to the technologies that increasingly allow us to hold time in suspension.’ – Steven Connor

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Fly by wire

I’ve just finished reading William Langewiesche’s Fly by Wire: The Geese, The Glide, the “Miracle” on the Hudson, about Chesley Sullenberger’s heroic crash landing in New York last January. It includes some grimly compelling accounts of collisions between birds and planes which are not likely to alter my status as a nervous non-flyer any time soon. I liked this wryly anthropocentric description of the fatal - for the geese anyway - encounter between US Airways Flight 1549 and the flock of Canada geese at 3.26pm on 15 January:

At about that time a flock of Canada geese was flying at 2,700 feet southwest-bound over the Bronx in a loose-echelon formation, tending to business as usual, with nothing special in mind. Much about those particular geese will never be known – for instance, where they had come from that day, and where they were headed, and why – but it is likely that they were well fed and self-satisfied. Evidently they were also fairly dumb. Their stupidity cannot be held against them, since they were just birds, after all, but geese are said to be adaptive creatures, and it is hard not to think that they should have had better sense than to go blithely wandering through New York City’s skies. New York is a busy place, and January 15 was a typical day there, propelled by all those schedules to keep. Was that so difficult to understand?

By the way, in case any one worries that I am the Candide of book reviewers and only ever say nice things about the books mentioned on this blog, let me reassure you that I also read an awful lot of barrel-scraping, rock-bottom rubbish. I’m just too polite to mention it. If you can’t say anything nice …

I’m now going to read Sophie Scholl: The True Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler by my colleague Frank McDonough, after I attended his book launch on Monday, which had some truly inspiring speeches and a mini-concert from the Backbeat Beatles.

Mundane quote for the day
: ‘As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror … And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue.’ – Virginia Woolf

Saturday, 20 February 2010

They think it's all over but it isn't

My favourite thing I discovered this week is this. At the halfway stage of extra time in the 1966 World Cup Final between England and West Germany, with England leading 3-2, the announcer on the BBC overseas service broke off the radio commentary. It was time for the news. After five minutes of world events, with presumably thousands of expats east of Suez screaming at the radio, they went straight to ten minutes of enlightened public service radio called ‘Sudan Commentary’. The service returned to Wembley just as the final whistle blew. One of the corporation men at Bush House said, ‘I suppose the reason for breaking into the game is that the news is sacrosanct. Not everyone is interested in football, but everyone is interested in the news, so to speak. But I suppose it would have been better to have dropped Sudan Commentary.’

The interesting thing about the television coverage of the 1966 World Cup final is that they didn't have the endless pre-match discussion and post-match post-mortems that we would have today. On BBC's World Cup Grandstand, they broke off at regular intervals for the cricket, Glamorgan v. West Indies. And on ITV’s World of Sport they also covered the Australian Pools results and the wrestling.

Autre temps, autre moeurs ...

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The net curtain is itself a sophisticated kind of purdah – a touch of Eastern promise in suburbia. After lighting-up time the more exhibitionist householder does not immediately close his main curtains, but for an hour or so gives his neighbours the pleasure of looking in through the net upon the silhouettes of a television supper or the preliminaries to a dinner party ... The twitching of the net curtain, far from being merely interfering or neurotic, is in fact a precondition of the best in the mutual helpfulness of community life.’ – Nicholas Taylor, The Village in the City

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

More UnReithian TV

New readers start here. From time to time on this blog we like to collect examples of UnReithian TV (see post for 7 March 2009) – the sort of TV programmes that, from their titles alone, would be the most likely to make Lord Reith turn in his grave. Some more examples below. The usual caveat applies: I haven’t actually seen any of these programmes, so for all I know they could be wonderfully enlightening, educational, inspiring, the finest examples of the best that human civilisation is capable of etc. etc.

Or, perhaps, not.

Embarrassing Bodies (C4)

My Ugly Best Friend (Living)

Dating in the Dark (Living)

Most Annoying People 2009 (NB 2007 and 2008 also available) (BBC3)

Too Fat to Toddle (ITV1)

The Execution of Gary Glitter (C4)

Michael Jackson: Live Séance (Sky1)

The Ghost Whisperer (Living)

Simon Cowell: Where Did It All Go Right? (Sky1)

Big Brother Celebrity Hijack (C4)

Inside the World’s Deadliest Snake (Sky3)

Celebrity Hens and Stags (Wedding TV)

Hotter than My Daughter (BBC3)

Piers Morgan’s Review of the Year (ITV1)

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I became a writer of television plays, entirely by accident, before I was in possession of a set or thought of television as anything other than a magic machine that transmitted cricket and football matches into the living rooms of friends .. I didn’t know – wouldn’t have been caught dead knowing – who Honor Blackman was: had never in my life clapped eyes on a ballroom dancer, at least in action; and wouldn’t have believed that people actually wrote plays for television. Now, a mere two and a half years later, I can usually identify by name the second villain in The Avengers, feel that my judgment ought to carry weight in the ballroom competitions, and have once or twice been overheard saying a soft good-night back at the closing-down announcer.’ - Simon Gray, ‘Confessions of a TV Playwright’, 1968

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Invasion of the one-eyed metal aliens

When this piece about the birth of the parking meter was published in the FT at the weekend (a slightly different version), my dad said, ‘That was just another piece ripped off from the roads book, wasn’t it?’ Er, no actually. That book was mainly about motorways, where there are no parking meters. Fond as I am of occasional recycling, I had to write this one from scratch.

In Grosvenor Square, London, on 10th July 1958 at 8.30am, George Nugent, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, ostentatiously pressed a sixpence into a slot to christen the first British parking meter. At the same time, the other 646 meters on the streets of Mayfair were all uncovered.

The parking meter gave birth to a new urban phenomenon, the traffic warden, and by the end of the day these eight Westminster Council employees had affixed a slip of paper to many cars imposing a ten shilling fine on the owner for exceeding the time allowed or for not paying at all.

The meter system was meant to stop motorists hogging a space all day. Parking by meter cost sixpence an hour, a shilling for two hours and ten shillings for up to four hours – which was the upper limit. Grosvenor Square was normally full of cars but on the 10th July about one in eight of the parking spaces remained empty. Naturally, the streets outside the metered zone were crammed full of parked cars. After two weeks of the scheme, the average daily takings per meter was just three shillings.

Parking meters had arrived late to Britain. They were first used in Oklahoma in 1935, and had spread to almost 3000 towns and cities by 1950. In the postwar years, however, British politicians were anxious not to penalise motorists because the car had become a symbol of the end of austerity and the promise of affluence. Only the chaos caused by parked vehicles in the centre of London persuaded the authorities finally to act. They were quickly followed by other councils: by 1965, 12 cities outside London also had parking meters.

Motoring organisations protested in vain, and in his 1960 hit, “Fings ain’t wot they used t’be”, Max Bygraves complained of “parking meters, outside our doors to greet us”. Still, parking restrictions in 1958 hardly seem Draconian by today’s standards. At 6.30pm, covers were put on the meters and parking was free until 8.30 the next morning – and all weekend.

The coin-operated meter is now an endangered species, as councils move towards pay-by-phone systems for street parking. But the arrival of the parking meter was a defining moment which marked the end of an era when motorists could park their cars wherever they liked.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I went up streets of dark purple and vomit green, all set at angles like ham sandwiches … and there were the peasant masses … shuffling along in their front-parlour-curtain dresses and cut-price tweeds and plastic mackintoshes, all flat feet and fair shares … and I thought, my God, my Lord, how horrible this country is, how dreary, how lifeless, how blind and busy over trifles!’ - Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Britain's got 'talent'

If you were wondering who was responsible for the worst economic crisis since the war, I can now reveal that it wasn’t those evil bankers after all, or indeed the sleepwalking politicians in hock to market fundamentalism who let them get away with it. No – and bear with me on this one because it’s a bit counter-intuitive – it turns out it was university lecturers. Which is presumably why we are the first (although we certainly won’t be the last) to be punished with budget cuts aimed at plugging the financial hole left by the billions used to rescue the banks eighteen months ago. Fortunately there won’t be much of a public fuss about it because, as any fule kno, university lecturers aren’t heroic, underpaid martyrs (cf nurses, teachers) but malingerers and charlatans with long holidays.

This means that over the next few years academics will be like the Kurdish teachers in Samira Makmalbaf’s film Blackboards, lugging blackboards on their backs through the rocky wastelands of Iran looking for illiterates to educate. Only now we will be roaming the land with our powerpoint lectures on memory sticks, in search of potential students with trust funds who can afford fees of £50k per annum.

It’s a funny thing, money. As an academic you get used to the people who run universities moaning all the time about rising staff costs, so you internalise this and essentially learn to think of yourself as a drain on resources. The implication is that universities would run much more smoothly if it wasn’t for the academics, who generally clutter up the place and haemorrhage money with their ever-rising salaries, which of course they will only spend on fripperies such as mortgages and food.

Oddly enough, they have exactly the opposite attitude to salaries in banking, where packages have to be ‘competitive’ and bonuses must be paid to keep hold of the best ‘talent’. The promiscuous use of the word ‘talent’ is one of the strangest verbal slippages of our times. I know little and care less about money and wouldn’t mind being paid in supermarket tokens, Amazon vouchers and some loose change for the chocolate machine. So I am quite happy for the greedy chancers who rule our lives to have as much money as they like – on one condition. They stop going on about their exceptional, risk-taking, wealth-creating ‘talent’.

On a more positive note, sod off day has arrived (see post for 20 May 2009), so if I still have a job in 2013 and haven’t had to reskill as a personal trainer or beauty therapist, I will be ‘REF-compliant’. Sod off, REF!

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The summit of the hierarchy is lost in the dark skies of finance capital. The high-ups have withdrawn so far that they are no longer touched by life down below and can make their decisions purely on the basis of economic considerations.’ – Siegfried Kracauer

Friday, 5 February 2010

TV talk

This piece by me appeared in the Guardian this week:

In January 1974, in the middle of the last great economic crisis, the critic Raymond Williams was watching a roundtable discussion on television when he heard the presenter say, “Well, finally – and I’m sorry to have to hurry you on this but we’re almost out of time so can you answer very briefly, in fact you have just 20 seconds: is Britain really on the edge of disaster?” Williams contrasted the relentlessness of the clock in these “serious” discussions with sports programmes where there was “an endless dribble of words, a kind of relentless filling-in, as if television were timeless”.

The Williams rule of television talk, that the amount of time devoted to a discussion rises in relation to the unimportance of the subject, holds even truer today. If you want to hear an extended debate about Ivana Trump’s earlobes, you can find it on the digital channels, where Celebrity Big Brother and other reality shows have their follow-up programmes. Here, because there is so much time to fill, the talk seems to go on and on, or maybe it is just that time passes more slowly. Meanwhile, on a recent Newsnight 30th anniversary special, Martin Amis, AS Byatt, Chris Patten and other guests were each given just a few minutes to discuss social and political change in Britain over the last three decades – a subject that one might have thought would merit at least as much time as celebrity earlobes.

This situation probably has more to do with the generic conventions of television than our addiction to trivia. All broadcast talk has to fight against the fact of its own artifice. Hilda Matheson, the BBC’s first director of talks, more or less invented the protocol in the early 1930s. At a time when most radio talk was in the form of a monologue, she believed it was “useless to address the microphone as if it were a public meeting” and devised the interview format as a way of avoiding the “parsonical drone” of the more boring speakers. Most radio discussions before the war, though, were scripted and rehearsed, with differences of opinion acknowledged through the exchange of prepared statements. Even today, some of this artificiality survives in any televised discussion: the participants have to conduct a public conversation while behaving as if the public is not watching, and to pretend that the discussion is happening in real time rather than in the unreal, constrained time of television.

In the early days of television, it was quite acceptable for discussion programmes to finish later or earlier than the scheduled time. That inspired creator of comic gobbledegook, Professor Stanley Unwin, was popular with producers precisely because if a show was under-running he could just talk nonsense to fill the gap. Nowadays the schedules are more tyrannical and in any case the serious programmes seem to fear boring viewers by dragging an item on for too long, so the presenters have people pestering them in their earpieces to move on to something else.

A lot of TV discussions have a death wish: they are driven, paradoxically, by the desire to bring the conversation to an end. Instead of developing organically they look for the definitive answer to a problem or argument, so they can reach that habitual cut-off moment when the presenter says “I’m afraid we’ve run out of time” or “we’ll have to leave it there”. I wonder if the pleasure of listening to Test Match Special, with its longueurs and digressions, has less to do with the cricket than the rare experience of overhearing an uninterrupted conversation which unfolds according to its own logic.

I have a vision of the eco-apocalypse in the year 2110. Half of Britain is under water and people have retreated to the hills, where the water is lapping round their ankles. On every TV channel they are rambling on about reality show trivia as if time were endless - except for one serious discussion on BBC4, where the presenter is chivvying along a panel of distinguished experts: ”I’m going to have to hurry you because we’re almost out of time but … are we all doomed?”

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Bread arouses the most archaic respect, nearly sacred; to throw it out, to trample over it is a matter of sacrilege; the scene of bread thrown in the trash arouses indignation; it cannot be separated from the working-class condition: to throw bread in the trash means to forget the story of poverty. It is a memorial.’ – Pierre Mayol

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Embracing the cold

The cold is back and the frost has left his secret ministry on my car windscreen again. Frankly, we’re going off him a bit. What’s worse is I’ve got a cold, a common cold. As you might have guessed, we don’t really go in for the glamorous rebranding of minor illnesses on this blog. You will hear no talk here of the man flu, or the Norovirus, or the dreaded lurgy. I’ve heard that swine flu is very in vogue this season, especially among my students, but we don’t follow fashion here. No, I have a cold, a common cold, and we embrace its commonness in all its 1001 varieties, as we do all varieties of the commonplace. This is the man of the moment’s advice to invalids:

Do you know what I find helps my cough? When I’m not working, I spray some turpentine on the edge of the desk and breathe in the fumes. And when I go to bed I spray some round the bedside table and other nearby objects. The spray evaporates more quickly than the liquid itself. Turpentine has rather a pleasant smell. I also drink Obersalzbrunnen, I don’t eat any hot dishes, I don’t talk much, and I scold myself for smoking too much. I repeat, you should wrap up as warmly as you can, even inside the house. Keep away from draughts in the theatre. Look after yourself like a hothouse plant, otherwise the cough will take a long time to get rid of. If you want to try the turpentine, buy the French kind. Take quinine once a day, and watch you don’t get constipated. Influenza has entirely removed from me any desire to drink spirits. They taste foul. I don’t have my normal two glasses at night, and so take a long time to get to sleep. I wish could take ether.

Thank you Dr. Chekhov (that’s enough Chekhov for a bit, Joe – Ed.), but I think I’ll make do with some Lemsip and an early night.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘There has never been so much light in the world as we have now, such instant dismissals of darkness. As for half-light, gloaming, we are not allowed to know what it is. This was when we used to do our thinking.’ – Ronald Blythe