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Where have the spikes of yesteryear gone?

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A man has a product that’s neither original nor distinctive which he’s trying to shift in a saturated marketplace. The TV company he works for invites him onto one of its magazine shows to plug the product. He sits down with the programme’s editor and together they cook up something topically and typically “controversial” for him to say. He goes on air and says it.
You are a journalist. Question: is this “controversy” a genuine story? Your answer is? No? Of course not. How could it be?
According to The Times, Charles Dickens once wrote this in defence of journalists and journalism: “I would venture to remind you how much we, the public, owe to the reporters for their skill in the two great sciences of condensation and rejection.”
Would you agree that the journalist should not just be a scientist of rejection, but has an absolute duty to reject the fake, the phoney, and the cynical manipulation of the channels of publicity for commercial or political ends?
Shouldn’t every journalist (even…

And now, some words from our fools & monsters

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Weird, some of the jobs that words are being asked to do. And redundant or deviously monstrous, I reckon, some of their other assignments.
Parked a street away from us is a grey Nissan Micra, fifteen years old, which has a rear window pennant insisting that its owner is “Proud to be a member of Equity.”
What’s this pennant actually telling us? Of what (be specific) is the Micra-owner proud? Would we, had we known about his or her membership without benefit of pennant, have doubted his or her pride, and suspected blackmail or a sullen sense of duty behind his or her decision to sign up? And how am I, a non-thespian, supposed to use this pride-centric information? Why should I care? And since the pennant has been published not by the actor-driver of the grey Nissan Micra, but by Equity itself, ought we to deduce that there’s a paranoid rump within its marketing team who suspect the union is largely despised? Or are they unconsciously displacing into this slogan their own secret fear that…

UK Riots: “we need more pundits now”, say desperate media

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An urgent plea for “massive numbers” of new pundit volunteers to help prevent the UK word shortage plunging “from crisis to catastrophe” was issued by the nation’s media today.
In the wake of last week’s country-wide disturbances broadcasters and newspapers have been using up verbiage in such enormous quantities that supplies are threatened with exhaustion and original ideas have dwindled almost to nil.
“Our punditry resources have been stretched virtually to breaking point, with some channels, like Radio 5, demanding almost a 24/7 service,” said a BBC spokeswomen.
“We are urging potential pundits to step forward, now.
“We know some people may be hesitant because they fear being asked for nuanced analysis or rounded perceptions, appreciations of complexity or a conciliatory approach.
“But this isn’t the case at all.
“On the one hand we’re looking for people who think the coalition is a Da Vinci Code style conspiracy to snaffle all the iced buns for the top table and consign the rest o…

The hacking stain spreads (but who’s minding the baby?)

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Back in April I wrote that I doubted whether the rest of the UK media would succeed in their attempts to quarantine the hacking scandal inside News of the World. Today we discover that the Daily Mirror has “launched a review into editorial standards” at all of its titles in response to allegations that reporters intercepted voicemail messages.
Piers Morgan, the former Mirror editor, made some suggestive admissions in his Desert Island Discs appearance, just placed online in text and sound by The Daily Beast:
Kirsty Young asks Morgan about “People who tap people’s phones, people who take secret photographs...who do all that very nasty down-in-the-gutter stuff—how did you feel about that?”
Morgan replies: “...Not a lot of that went on…A lot of it was done by third parties, rather than the staff themselves... That’s not to defend it, because obviously you were running the results of their work.”
Interesting coincidence that two commentators who have advocated draconian responses to the scand…

Entertainment or propaganda? – from W1 to E98

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I didn’t know until a day or so ago that Margaret Howell, the upmarket shirt shop in Wigmore Street, used to be the Bechstein piano emporium. Nor did I know that the Wigmore Hall, when it opened in 1901, was called the Bechstein Hall, and had been paid for by the neighbouring importer of German uprights and grands.
My third heretofore unknown fact was that in 1916, around the time Dame Nellie Melba was savaged by “patriots” for having a Bechstein to accompany her as she sang “Land of Hope and Glory”, the British government confiscated shop, hall and the contents of both on the pretext that they were enemy property.
I discovered these things while poking about the web after visiting the Wigmore Hall for the first time this week to see our friends’ daughter play violin in the superb Pro Corda Chamber Champions Concert.
It would have made more sense had I already known the previously unknowns when, listening in the first half to Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, I began to get spooked b…

Who bans the news that “isn’t fit to print”?

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A sentence and an image are haunting me. The sentence, prompted by the righteous outpourings of The Guardian, the BBC, and certain Members of Parliament, is Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s:
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”
The image, perhaps a bit impious, was occasioned by the fate of The News of the World: a thief being nailed and hoisted on a cross.
This is Sir Roger L’Estrange (1616-1704). He lived up to his surname. On the one hand, he was a journalist and the publisher of two papers, The Public Intelligencer (Mondays) and The News (Thursdays). On the other, he was a censor, known as “The Bloodhound of the Press” for the ferocity with which he purged, persecuted and suppressed dissidence and non-conformity in his twin roles as Surveyor of the Imprimery (the printing presses) and Licenser of the Press.
Dear old Rog even tried to cut six lines from Paradise Lost because he reckoned that Milton was making some coded atte…

Through a Maoist looking glass

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This astonishing poster is called: “In Following the Revolutionary Road, Strive for an Even Greater Victory.” Can you call it beautiful? There’s the enigma.
As a visual statement it’s electric and mesmerising. As visual documentary – a frame excerpted from history – it is... what? The talisman of a terror, totalitarian and mendacious?
We know nothing about the mind behind the brush beyond a date, 1970, and a workshop: Shanghai Revolutionary Publishing Group. Was she or he idealist or cynic? volunteer or conscript? Committed, socialist genius? artist with nowhere to go but “revolutionary” art? and what did the original audiences think? and if we could possibly answer any of those questions, would it (should it?) affect our perceptions?
The poster is part of a superb Chinese archive held by the University of Westminster. An exhibition, Poster Power: Images from Mao’s China, Then and Now, has just opened at the University’s buildings in Regent Street, London W1B 2UW, and runs until Jul…

Westward, TSW and the Cadbury ghost

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[Archaeology: Westward/TSW complex, Derry’s Cross, Plymouth, 2011. Rubble covers the old studio and transmission areas; I used to work in an office by the four windows at the back; the canteen and bar ended where two vehicles are parked; new executives arrived triumphant and departed bruised just beyond the upturned tray, old drink can and squashed plastic bottle]

It annoys me that I never met Peter Cadbury. I arrived at Westward TV shortly after his final defenestration, which was rather like going on an exchange to a foreign family who’d just concluded a vicious divorce.
On one side were the remaining and new management: the parent left in possession of the home. On the other, the staff: his orphaned children.
Enmities. Flashes of inexplicable anger. Sarcasm. False smiles and denial.
I’d never before experienced anything like this (nor have I since). What was it about?
“There is, I suppose,” I’d said to Ronnie Perry, the MD, at my interview, “no chance that you’re going to lose this fra…

The murders, the mirror and the serpentines

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A detective called Erik Lönnrot is a man of prodigious intelligence; one of a type we love, and whom we imagine solving fiendish crosswords in minutes and secretly writing perfect sestinas and villanelles.
He believes the solution to a murder is hidden in the arcana of ancient Hebrew theology. Perhaps through vanity, he throws out clues to his theory and modus operandi in a newspaper interview and names an obscure volume which an opportunist bookseller immediately finds and prominently displays.
A second and a third murder (although the third in the series is perplexed by the absence of a corpse) seem to confirm his conjectures.
But the interview, clues and the book have furnished the assassin with the means to construct the otherwise absent mystery for himself, and thus conduct Lönnrot through the second and third murders to the fourth, where the assassin gets a revenge which has eluded and frustrated him for years by shooting the detective.
Lönnrot’s prosaic superior, Treviranus, has b…

Hacking: a hack has his doubts

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Those of us who have rattled around a bit in the world of journalism know that there is a squad of freelances who dance along the margins of truth and legality to get whatever stuff they can and sell it in whichever marketplace will buy, sharing tricks and techniques as they go.
That’s why I find it impossible to believe that the phone hacking scandal is confined to the News of the World and News International.
The Guardian and the BBC would seem to want us to believe this is the case. But then, it feels like The Guardian has cast itself as a virtuous newsprint Perseus on a mission to behead the evil Murdoch Medusa, while the BBC has loathed News International ever since Rupert Murdoch, in a surprisingly nervous performance (which I witnessed) at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 1989 delivered a MacTaggart lecture in which he denounced the then TV establishment as “an integral part of the British disease” and made it clear that he detested the licence fee as an anachronism and a brake on f…

Work this one out

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Signed up this week for the new Government on-line service which advises when suitable contracts are coming up.
To ensure relevance, you key in some search terms. Mine were, alphabetically arranged: Brand, Communications Skills, Conferences, Internal Communications, Marketing, Video Production.
My first suggested contract arrived this morning:

Remediation of well, St James Park – These are works which proceed from the clearance and pump testing of a well on Duck Island in St. James’s Park, Westminster. The works are to make permanent the temporary works so far carried out, to install a steel casing and pump within the well and to provide a permanent single duty and single point of discharge to the lake.

Summer’s coming, and as you can see, it’s a pretty little place. Charles I walked beside the lake between breakfast and execution.
As it happens, I was thinking the other day of writing a story in which the twist is John Milton realising and confessing to Charles II that the two groans he w…

What we were fighting for... (a tree-hugger’s postscript)

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What do we know? You walk past a tattered old tree. If you see it at all, you think, “there’s a tattered old tree.” Transpires you’re walking past 1500 years of birdsong, war, poetry, tobacco-smoke, exile, failure and hope. Could be any old tree, near any of us. Demolishable in less than hour to save a few quid for David Cuckoo-Clock and Nick Clogg.
High above London grows a solitary fir tree – this one – the last of a stand that was planted in 1745 by William Turner, a retired tobacconist whose business was (where else?) in Fleet Street.
Already, Turner’s pines were more than half a century old when John Keats saw them while rambling on Hampstead Heath as a medical student, looking for medicinal herbs with his tutor, William Salisbury.
William Blake must have walked past them on his way to Sunday lunch with John Linnell (maybe the firs are visible in the background of this picture by Linnell of the ageing visionary, poet and painter on the Heath?).
Byron and Shelley and Coleridge would …

Tories felled by Forest Thump

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Like Bottom before him, David Cameron wandered into the woods and got turned into an ass. Seems Oberon is still around, and doesn’t discriminate between a rude mechanical and a smart-arse plutocrat.
It isn’t just that the woods won. They always must. What surprised me was the totality of the surrender and the speed of the victory.
I’ve written before about the cultural and emotional resonance of the woodlands. Thinking a little more around the theme, I begin to understand that for a people with such a bruised, retiring and secretive sense of nationhood as the English, certain things will have animating force; that when the symbolic and the actual are united in a single phenomenon, as they are in these ancient woods, an extraordinary vitality will exist – which we’ve just seen uncorked.
Coole House in Ireland, the home of Lady Gregory, was clearly once such a place. Why else was it destroyed? But Coole’s Seven Woods remain, and I’ll leave it to an Irishman (an Anglo-Irishman) who used to …

The meaning of the movement in the woods

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Round one, then, goes to our nationwide army of tree-huggers. But if you study the detail, you’ll see that rounds two, three and onwards are still to be fought.
True, the Government has started to back away from the indiscriminate sale and enclosure of our woodlands. But this weekend’s concession applies to just 15 per cent of forestry. The remaining 75 per cent is still - unless our pressure is sustained and successful – heading for the auctioneer’s hammer and thence to the barbed wire and chainsaws of privatisation (Mary Creagh explores background and jeopardy in her Guardian piece from February 11).
If you’ve been following the campaign websites of the Woodland Trust and 38-Degrees you’ll have observed that whenever a target was set on a particular day for a new total of petition signatories it was almost always exceeded.
Thinking, in the couple of weeks since I last blogged on the subject, about this extraordinarily vigorous response, I remembered a book I’d read back in 1998. Calle…

At the court of public opinion

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And lo! I found myself in a great vaulted court, upon the bench of which crouched a monster whose limbs shook incessantly, and whose face was bloated and twisted and black. And from his flabby mouth, each time he exhaled, issued a myriad sparks, which were drenched to cinders by the bile that followed them, and fell upon the granite blocks of the walls and on the beams and ceiling, and on the furnishings and on the floor, which was a sea of hissing, creaking clinker, while everything else besides was vanishing under a film of soot.
And I said to the demon at my side, who was naked except for a pork pie hat, and scratching himself, “what manner of creature is this?”
And he replied, “The name of the monster is ‘Opinion,’ and his time is the last winter of the living language. In his realm there is no tender thought that goes untrampled, no guilty dream that is not seized and turned out of doors to be pilloried, no doubt or difficulty that passes unreviled.”
And as I listened and watched, t…

Cameron – spare those trees

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We have nothing in England to equal la France profonde. Nothing – geographically – as remote and deep. But were we to look for an emotional equivalent (I was going to say “spiritual,” but I don’t want to frighten the unicorns) then eyes, feelings and folk memories might light on our woodlands.
If I start to warble about the forests of Arden and Dean, the yew of Agincourt and the oak of Trafalgar, you’ll probably have me down as some kind of sub-BNP nutter. And yet, how to explain the extraordinary chord that’s been struck by the campaign against the Government’s intention to privatise our woodlands?
Within moments of reading the Woodland Trust and Save our Forests appeals I was signed up and circulating the links. And within the day, I’d had dozens of responses, some friends sending proof that they in turn had forwarded the websites to dozens of their own friends.
Is it just that here, on this issue, the Tories have spotlit their essential Tory-ness, heirs as they are to predecessors t…

News from the Witchfinders General (a kind of homicide)

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So keen are the new Puritans to stop our ears with their horny fingers that often they don’t bother to listen in the first place to the material they’re rushing to place under interdict.
A song is the latest victim of their asphyxiation: Money for Nothing by Dire Straits. According to The Guardian (January 17):
“Although it has become a rock'n'roll anthem, Money for Nothing contains three instances of the anti-gay slur 'faggot'. Last week, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) reviewed the song after receiving a complaint from a listener in Newfoundland. Its lyrics were found to be 'unacceptable', contravening the human rights clauses of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' code of ethics. It has been banned from radio stations nationwide.”
“But it is a homophobic song,” said my son. “No it’s not,” I replied. You see, in our contemporary world of accelerated judgment and instant opinion, the CBSC has typically failed before condemnation to allo…

Brave, Weird, Heroic, Creepy

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Story Worknotes: It was barely light, and he was just at the brow of the hill when a huge shadow overarched him and there was a stupefying thud. Puddle water sprayed his face and shook the red valerian in the wall against which he cowered. The wheel of a coach had crashed into the kerb.
Looking up he saw – “like an illuminated tableau” – the terrified faces of the children and the coach driver, dazed, dishevelled, apparently drunk, crouched over the wheel, one eye shut.
“I didn’t really think,” he said later – and observed how the Press used that line, but not the one that followed: “it only took a moment,”; used “anyone would have done it” (he said, modestly) but not, “anyway, it wasn’t particularly difficult.”
Not really thinking, he stepped up onto the running board, twisting his boot so he didn’t slip on the wet metal, pressed the emergency button, pushed through the opening door and, because the coach was beginning to gather speed and slalom downhill, he wrenched the driver from hi…