Thursday, 29 April 2010

Carpe Diem Daily

The School of Life, on which I have written on these pages before, has created a free mobile phone app, Carpe Diem Daily, which sends users a daily message and a task to ‘encourage reflection and looking at the world in an inquisitive and helpful way’:

Interest declared: I came up a few of the messages and tasks. Such as this one:

The Sea of Tranquillity, the Ocean of Storms, the Bay of Rainbows. They have more poetic names for places on the moon. Come up with some poetic names for places on earth. For example, England, Scotland and Wales could be “the wobbly triangle of rain”.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The Autoroute is a rose river, along which floats a barely perceptible violet mist, and the cars and trucks pass like ghosts, their deafening noise hushed at night by the fog that softens everything, by the distance between them and us, which delimits the world where we live, as if we were not, nor could we ever be, travellers on the same road.’ – Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop, The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

It's a no from me

This piece about the talent show appeared in a slightly shorter version in Saturday’s Guardian:

The primetime TV talent show is the Lazarus of light entertainment. Thirty years ago it seemed like a dead form, its lifeblood of variety theatres and working men’s clubs having largely drained away. In fact, the moment when the talent show died could be dated quite precisely. It came in spring 1978, when ITV’s Opportunity Knocks and New Faces ended within a few weeks of each other. The Guardian’s Peter Fiddick called them “the shows that died of embarrassment”.

The late Bill Cotton, who fashioned the classic Saturday night schedules on BBC1 in the 1970s, refused to commission talent shows because he thought them cruel and manipulative – especially what he called the “cattle market” of New Faces, where judges uttered caustic putdowns of contestants. God knows what he would have made of Britain’s Got Talent, with its brutal dismissals of the talentless that make Tony Hatch seem cuddly by comparison. “Who is to tell some poor bloke who comes on as a singer,” Cotton asked in 1975, “that he would be better to stick to being a butcher?” Today’s talent show judges seem untroubled by this dilemma.

Even watching them as a child in the 1970s, I could see that talent shows had that indefinable but unmistakable quality of ITV naffness. They were so obviously inferior to BBC shows like Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies, where the talent had been tested by years of apprenticeship and honed to a smooth professional finish. By contrast, Opportunity Knocks looked cheap and amateurish, with its rickety clapometer which Hughie Green insisted was “just for fun, friends”, so you had to wait a whole week before the real winner was revealed from viewers’ votes sent in by post. Admittedly, if you wrote in you could win a VIP trip to London, including dinner at the Riverside Restaurant of the Stars where “Thames TV personalities may be seated at the next table”. But even as an eight year old, I did not find this enticing.

What makes Britain’s Got Talent so addictively entertaining is that its judgments are quicker and more brutal than this. Hughie Green conducted several thousand auditions a year for Opportunity Knocks without the presence of a television crew, and the contestants still left in after this filtering process were those who could do conventional things, like pub singing or stand-up, in a mediocre but not comically bad way. I seem to remember one contestant who hit his head on a metal tray to music, and another who played Scotland the Brave on a mouth organ while hanging upside down. But on the whole Opportunity Knocks steered clear of the Dadaist surrealism of Britain’s Got Talent’s open auditions, with their ballet-dancing dogs, pot-belled belly dancers and parrots that can (or, actually, can’t) eat mashed potato from a spoon.

The red button and the mobile phone have also transformed the talent show, making Green’s pioneering attempts at audience interactivity seem primitively analogue. It is interesting that this brand of push-button populism has also influenced the televised election debates. The party leaders may not be buzzed off by judges or shouted down by the audience, but there is the same kind of rush to instantaneous judgment, from Twitter trending to “the worm”, that squiggly line that moves up and down the TV screen showing immediate reactions from groups of swing voters. Just as in the reality talent show, this sort of split-second democracy is both empowering and infantilising. The audience’s decision is final but it is only allowed one, simple expression of approval or disapproval.

The most significant thing that politics seems to have borrowed from the TV talent shows, though, is a promiscuous use of the word “talent” itself. Gordon Brown has professed his admiration for Britain’s Got Talent and similar shows, and used them as a cultural metaphor for his government’s interest in social mobility and individual aspiration: the nation’s untapped “talent” must be unearthed and cultivated, as openly and democratically as it is on The X Factor. But talent is an eclectic and slippery concept. When bankers want to keep hold of their bonuses, they say that wealth-creating “talent” must be rewarded or it will simply go elsewhere. The point about “talent” in these contexts is that it is a more nebulous word than say, knowledge, skill or expertise. You either have talent or you don’t: it can be nurtured and rewarded but it can’t be replicated or conjured out of nothing. The unasked question is what happens to the people who don’t have this ill-defined, amorphous, non-transferable quality called “talent”. Britain’s Got Talent suggests one answer. They will be given “three nos” and, after a short, consoling hug from Ant and Dec, will go back to leading their disappointing lives.

I am loving this new, beautifully shot John Lewis ad, with a great version of a Billy Joel song by Fyfe Dangerfield …

… although, professional contrarion that I am, not quite as much as I was loving it before everyone else decided they loved it as well.

Still, it’s a yes from me.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

The comfort of things

I’ve been reading and admiring Daniel Miller’s book The Comfort of Things. Miller is a UCL professor who, like Mass Observation’s Tom Harrison half a century before him, made the move from conventional anthropology – doing doctoral research in a North Indian village in the 1980s – to domestic anthropology. With his co-researcher Fiona Parrott, he spent a year and a half interviewing the inhabitants of an ungentrified but perfectly respectable street in south-east London, in an area resembling New Cross. There are some heart-rending accounts of lonely old single men, and a lovely portrait of a happy marriage. And I liked this description of one itinerant Australian: ‘Given his mobility, there is only one address that seems to have much by way of permanence; and that is not a place of bricks and mortar, but his email address. Because the email address has established itself as the place where everyone can always find him, and he is always at home.’

This is how Miller explained the project in an essay:

I have studied the community of a street because it isn’t a community. I studied a street because it represents no person and no group, or at least none in particular … I didn’t want some sink council estate that stood for poverty, or some mansions that stood for wealth. I didn’t want a black area or a white area. I wanted a “whatever” area … we live the discourse of the street, the fantasy of community, of neighbourhood, of history, of local identity, of street festivals, street complaints, street parking … Soon after we began a major crime occurred at one end of the street, one that involved a celebrity and reached the newspapers. Yet it never travelled as gossip to the other end of the street. Some community!

We all want to live on Festive Road with Mr Benn, but we can't go home again.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Ninety per cent of life is just turning up.’ – Woody Allen

Thursday, 22 April 2010

An unloved place

I enjoyed these thoughts on corridors, from Steven Connor’s ‘love letter to an unloved place', broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves, 22 June 2004.

‘Of course, some institutions recognise the antechamber role the corridor performs by putting out chairs. But sitting in a chair in a corridor exposes one to as much humiliation and evacuation of being as sitting in a chair on the street …

Corridors are institutional, associated not with private homes, but with schools, hospitals, hotels, town halls, office buildings, police stations, radio stations and barracks. The fundamental unhomeliness of corridors is suggested by the fact that the rooms to which they give access are nearly always numbered, in a way that rooms in a private house, however massive, could never be …

The corridor is the place of the reprobate, the plaintiff, the petitioner. To be in the corridor is to become one of these …

There was a time a few years ago when feelings about the shortcomings or difficulties of the National Health Service would be focussed in stories of patients left for immense periods of time on trolleys, when beds were not available. All the attention was focussed on this mythical ‘trolley’, although in fact all hospital beds are mobile, and therefore in a sense all trolleys. What really mattered and mostly remained unspoken was that to give out, as some did, on a trolley, meant to die in the place where trolleys traffic and accumulate, in corridors.’

Connor has some more good stuff on his website at

Also, I just found out today that On Roads has been longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize:

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Reality hunger

I’ve just finished David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. It’s a sort of polemic against narrative fiction, which argues that our age now demands reality distilled in more concentrated form, ‘books for people who find television too slow’. ‘What I am is a wisdom junkie,’ Shields writes, ‘knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation.’

The book consists of a collection of numbered aphorisms which turn out to be mostly taken from other sources. He was only persuaded to include references at the end at the behest of Random house’s lawyers, because ‘the citation of sources belongs to the realm of journalism and scholarship, not art. Reality can’t be copyrighted.’ The book comes with some rapturous endorsements, sometimes from authors whose work he has appropriated. Nice work if you can get it ...

I did like Shields’s definition of what he means by his favoured form of the ‘lyric essay’:

In fiction, lyricism can look like evasion, special pleading, pretension. In the essay, it’s apparently artistic, a lovely sideshow to The Real that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know … [The lyric essay] relies on both art and fact, on imagination and observation, rumination and argumentation, human faith and human perception … it is the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theatre is the world … it offers no consoling dream-world, no exit door .. It partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language, and partakes of the essay in its weight, its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.

Anyway, it strikes me that what Shields is after – montage, collage, distilled wisdom, quotation, the capturing of daily life outside of the constraints of narrative fiction – is exactly what I’m doing on this blog. I wonder if I could persuade someone to put it between covers and call it ‘a manifesto’ …

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Get your kicks on the A57

I have an essay, ‘The future of roads’, in the latest issue of the journal Soundings. It’s not available on the web but here’s the opening. If you carry on along the A57 it goes all the way to my home town, Glossop, and ends up in Lincoln. Another long and winding A road is the A34, which takes you all the way from a roundabout on the outskirts of Winchester, on to the Newbury bypass, and ends up as Oxford Road in Manchester.


You can learn much about recent British history and politics just from driving along a single stretch of road. Our collective hopes and fears about the kind of society we want to live in lie buried in the asphalt. The history of roads is the history of ourselves: our desire for community and our fears about its fragility; our natural instinct to expand the possibilities of life set against our premonitions of death, destruction and loss; and our fierce arguments about what is valuable and beautiful about the world. But this history, like the road itself, is full of loose ends and detours, unfinished stories and stalled narratives.

Take the A57, which begins at the junction with Liverpool’s Dock Road, about five minutes drive from where I work. You head out of town on the Prescot Road, a 1930s landscaped parkway lined by semis in that Stockbroker Tudor style that Osbert Lancaster called ‘bypass variegated’, the work of the speculative builders who were stopped in their tracks by the postwar planning system. Then the road suddenly becomes a bendy single carriageway as you are shunted off what used to be the dead-straight A57 onto the downgraded, detrunked road. By the time you reach Eccles on the Manchester outskirts, you are trapped in a maze of roundabouts, before the A57 finally has its motorway moment: the Mancunian Way.

The Mancunian Way, or A57 (M), is the illegitimate child of the City of Manchester Plan, published a month after VE Day in June 1945 – one of the most ambitious of the great provincial postwar planning schemes. It planned to rebuild Manchester over the next 50 years, sweeping away its obsolete Victorian infrastructure and replacing it with ‘the city beautiful’, a vision influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement. Mancunians would be moved out of their city centre slums and factories to live and work in the arcadian outskirts. The new Manchester, wrote the City Surveyor, Roland Nicholas, would shake off the prewar drift into ‘depopulation, economic decline, cultural apathy and social dissolution’, and enter ‘a nobler, braver age in which the human race will be master of its fate’. Opening a huge exhibition of the plan at Manchester City Art Gallery, W.S. Morrison, Minister of Town and Country Planning, called it a ‘stupendous feat’ and ‘an example to the rest of England in constructive and positive planning’.

These ambitious plans depended on one thing: roads. Nicholas opened his discussion on Manchester’s existing roads with the then obligatory quote from Le Corbusier (‘If once we consider seriously the problem of the street and arrive at a solution, our existing great cities will be shaken to their foundations and the age of town planning will have begun’) and reminded his readers not to be lulled into complacency by the quiet wartime traffic. Prewar tinkering like road widening and one-way streets had ‘served only to defer for the time being the evil day of complete strangulation’. Traffic saturation could only be halted by a complete overhaul of the roads. ‘The time for expensive makeshifts and unsatisfactory palliatives is past,’ he argued. ‘We must have a road network properly designed to serve its essential purpose – the smooth, safe and speedy passage of a vastly expanded volume of motor traffic.’ His solution (copied by other cities, including London) was to alter the road pattern from something like the spokes of a rimless bicycle wheel to a spider’s web – four ring roads linked by lots of radials. Wherever possible the new roads would be parkways, with trees and flowers on the verges and central reservations. In the centre, roads would be widened like Baron Haussman’s Parisian boulevards, the River Irwell covered over with a giant roundabout and whole streets flattened to make a processional route from the town hall to the law courts …

Mundane quote for the day:
A man on his own in a car
Is revenging himself on his wife;
He opens the throttle and bubbles with dottle
And puffs at his pitiful life. – John Betjeman

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Such, such were the joys

By coincidence I’ve been reading two books – John Peel’s Margrave of the Marshes and Harry Thompson’s biography of Peter Cook – which touch on the strange everyday rituals of British public schools in the early fifties. This is Peel on Shrewsbury school:

‘A boy called Cox was my study monitor for a year and amongst the tasks he assigned me on a regular basis was that of boot-polishing his bicycle tyres. When he adjudged them clean and shiny enough, he would take his bike for a short spin in the mud before telling me to start again.’

And this is Thompson on Cook’s school, Radley:

‘In summer the “wet-bobs” rowed and the “dry-bobs” played cricket. First years had to have all their jacket buttons done up, which could then be loosened at the rate of one a year … The prefects alone were allowed to carry their gowns, to stroll past the clock tower - others had to jog past it in single file - and to go to the lavatory with the door shut … The Radley day began at 6.45 a.m. with a compulsory and thorough icy shower, as checked off by a prefect reclining in an adjacent hot tub … If you were fagging for your Senior much of the weekend was spent shoe-cleaning, toast-making and warming outside lavatory seats.’

This sophisticated, institutionalised bullying sounds like Tompkinson’s Schooldays in Ripping Yarns – probably not coincidentally, because Michael Palin went to Shrewsbury a few years after Peel. I’m so glad I went to the local comp …

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day … Eating, sleeping, cleaning – the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, grey and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won. Washing, ironing, sweeping, ferreting out fluff from under wardrobes – all this halting of decay is also the denial of life; for time simultaneously creates and destroys, and only its negative aspect concerns the housekeeper.’ – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Breaking news

The big news here – in fact, the lead story on BBC news one day last week – is that the CEOs of several leading companies have announced that they are against the hike in National Insurance planned by the Labour government. Instead, the shortfall in the public finances needed to be made up by more ‘efficiency savings’ in the public sector.

I’m expecting more breaking news this week to the effect that children aren’t particularly keen on eating up their greens, and that teenagers are strongly against tidying up their bedrooms.

I’m reminded of something I read in Richard Hoggart’s memoirs: ‘In the modern developed world, where all are said to be literate but are encouraged to remain literate only at a very low level, we begin to move out of the persuasion-chrysalis only when we recognise that almost all we read in daily life is special pleading.’