Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Movember, Mo problems

November means Movember and Movember means facial hair. Adults and elder Schoolchildren alike will spend the next month becoming more hirsute and the national statistics for number of goatees, handlebars, droopers and the caterpillar-lip moustache that usually only the chap from Sparks (see left, though it looks rather Adolf-esque here) and John Walters cultivate will all increase. I assume that the number of Hitler-taches will remain at pretty much zero.

I know this is for a good cause (apparently to raise awareness for male cancers such as testicular and prostate and also men's mental health) but I had to look this up (maybe this proved the point about awareness) and it's not exactly prominent on their website. There's far more detail about the rules (are these strictly necessary?) and examples of the most impressive facial hair to be developed over the 30 days of November.

I like the fund-raising side of it, though I think I'd rather give money to someone who's run the London Marathon than someone who simply hasn't bothered shaving for a month. The bit I really don't like is the increasing number of people who simply grow a bit of bumfluff because November means Movember and that's what people do these days. The charity element of Movember hasn't registered with them. It's akin to standing outside Sainsbury's with a plastic model of a lifeboat because you saw someone else doing it and thought it would be fun.

The health-awareness message of Movember is in danger of being lost when it is no longer original and I'd like to think that all the new David Brent look-a-likes I see wandering the streets over the next month are all looking that way because they're doing something for charity and not that they're jumping on a bandwagon to have a bit of personal fun for one month each year.

How about simpy persuading men to give money to appropriate charities without the need to prove via a furry top lip the effort they're making (ie not a lot, and possibly zero)? Isn't there somthing just a little tacky about displaying to the world just what a good guy you are; it's not so very different from the over-enthusiastic silver-top who rattles the plastic charity jar in your face outside the supermarket. Charity shoudn't need to have a fun side - it's just morally the right thing to do.

Anyway, charity begins at home, and that's just where you'll find your razor.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The New Socialising

I went to a party on Saturday.  I don't often get invited to parties.  It was a perfectly good party: in a bar, with food and drink and company and though I didn't know many of the people there, they all seemed nice and friendly.

The day after the party I finished the book 'The Teleportation Accident' by Ned Beauman, where the narrator of the tale states:

"Compare the Venice of the late renaissance … to the Berlin of Weimar … to whatever city would turn out to be most fashionable in 2012, and you would find the same empty people going to the same empty parties and making the same empty comments about the same empty efforts, with just a few spasms of worthwhile art going on at the naked extremities. Nothing ever changed. That was equivalence."

If that's his definition of equivalence then Saturday's party gave me a sense of equivalence.  It was very similar to parties that I used to attend in the days when I attended more parties than I do now.  I wouldn't suggest that any of my parties bear much resemblance those that went on in Isherwood's Berlin, but they certainly bear a great similarity to each other.  The parties haven't changed much, but the people at the parties have changed quite a lot.  I used to go to parties with other teenagers when I was a teenager myself.  I then went to university parties, then parties for people in their mid-twenties.  I am now more likely to attend Christening parties, 40th birthday parties or divorce parties.

  If one defines parties by a rather all-encompassing definition that involves a reasonable number of people who get together at a specific venue for the purpose of eating, drinking, chatting and perhaps dancing, then this is what I mean by the fact that the parties haven't changed very much, certainly from when I was a teenager and probably from way back in the days of the Weimar.  A graph of time (x axis) versus change in party-style (y axis) would look very much like a flat-line.  If I plotted a different graph of my age (x axis) versus suitability for this kind of socialising (y axis), it would look more like the parabola above.  The far left-hand side would be me at School the far right me now aged 36 and the peak represents me around 25.

School socialising was terrible.  I knew it at the time and I know it now.  Being at a Boarding School meant that Saturday night was the only night with potential for socialising.  The pressure one felt on a Saturday was acute.  Add to this pressure a lack of funds, lack of any real social skills (especially where members of the opposite sex were concerned) and a likelihood of not being served alcohol in any decent establishment and you created a potent cocktail to guarantee social failure.  It's not a though it was just pubs that wouldn't serve us; we were lucky to get served alcohol in one of the local curry houses.  An order of 5 poppadoms and 5 pints of lager was common and there wasn't much chance of making contact with the opposite sex in the window table of Amran's in Bedford.  Likewise a lack of funds meant that one had to nurse each pint for around 90 minutes to make sure you weren't left dry by 9pm.  The second half of the pint tasted how I imagine the dregs of lager being poured down the sink the morning after a party would taste if one were curious or desperate enough to take a sip.

By my mid-20s, I was at party peak.  Funds were no longer an issue, getting served was no longer tricky and with the 'Loaded' version of the New Lad dead by 2002, it was fine to wear fitted floral shirts out in public.  Many contemporaries remained incapable of talking to members of the opposite sex, instead employing the tactic of 'separate a girl from her group of friends and then grind like there's no tomorrow'.  It wasn't successful.  But doing what we were doing felt about right.  Quaffing a bottle of absinthe before taking a bus to Loop bar felt like the right thing to do, with all problems associated with youth, finances and shyness removed.

But I've come out the other side now and I'm nearing the bottom of the parabola again.  The parties are the same but I've changed.  Frankly I feel a little embarrassed doing the same kind of socialising that I used to do (albeit unsuccessfully) aged 17.  I know this is my problem and few other people seem to have similar concerns, but it still leaves me pondering: What's next?  What's the new socialising?  Is it only canapes, dinner parties, kitchen suppers and Burial on the ipod if one wants to socialise in groups?  Or can I spend my time walking round Victorian graveyards on my own without feeling weird?

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Food *AND* drink

Another post about food I'm afraid, so if you're one of those people who eats in order to live, you might want to look away now.

One of the main things that makes food (and by this I really mean restaurant dining) so interesting is the perpetual need for reinvention.  Lots of restaurants tend to look at bit old-hat after they've been open a few years and unless you're serving uber-traditional fare (which can itself be rather daring) the chances are that you'll be next year's fish and chip paper.  Restaurants come and go; many go because they are not very good, or they are unlucky, or they're a poor business model, or people simply get bored of them,  There's certainly no shortage of people with an idea (nay, a concept) willing to take their place.

Korean food seems to be big at the moment, but it was Peruvian last year, small plates the year before, pop-ups the year before that, all the way back to when extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar in little china bowls on the table seemed rather high-class.

But it's the new-ish concept of ultra-limited menus that surprises me, both in terms of concept and popularity.  It's barely a concept - making your menu smaller and smaller until you end up with just two things on the menu seems to obviate the point of a restaurant.  When I go to a restaurant I expect choice and sometimes I don't know what I want until I get there.  I'm not suggesting that I'm the sort of person who will go to McDonald's for a hangover burger and once there will change my mind and have a McGrape or a McCarrot but I like to feel when spending more money that I'm at least going to have a choice.  Otherwise it's rather like dining at home.  When cooking at home I make one meal and the absence of choice is accepted as one of the inevitable drawbacks of eating in.

London restaurateurs have managed to make people believe that offering a far less extensive menu is a guaranteed sign that what is on offer will be great.  There's partial logic in this - if the restaurant has fewer things to concentrate on it might be able to make the small number of things that it makes a little better.  But surely this doesn't usually work.  Pizza joints, curry houses, chicken shops - these are the traditional homes of the 'one product' restaurant and they're the sort of places that provide grisly mixtures of protein, bread and sauce rather than high-end cuisine.

The opening in London of Tramshed, Burger and Lobster and Bubbledogs all in the last year or so herald the new breed of ultra-limited menu joints.  Tramshed only serves chicken and steak.  Burger and Lobster has only two dishes on the menu (though there's a fair few in between posh crustacean and fast-food meat-between-bread).  

Surely the most ridiculous idea is that of bubbledogs, a restaurant that serves hot-dogs and champagne.  That's right, the 'barely-meat' staple of the monstrously fat American red-neck and the world's most expensive sparkling wine.  Champagne got all tarnished when footballers decided that Cristal (with its nasty orange plastic wrapper) was the drink for them, but surely the generally accepted advice that champagne can be drunk with anything is being pushed a little by pairing it with that pink offal-tube usually to be found swimming in it's own bile at the base of a cart in Central Park.  The converts will inevitably say that these are not your common or garden hot-dogs, these hot-dogs are made with properly sourced meat, with lovingly crafted toppings.  But it's still a hot-dog.  These things, like burgers, we not supposed to be restaurant food.  That's why they have a piece of bread on either side, so that you can pick them up and eat them on the go.

What's next?  I will not be satisfied until the first branch of 'Salt and Pepper' opens, a restaurant dealing only in seasoning, where pink Himalayan sea-salt flakes are complemented by 'Grains of Paradise' peppercorns.  Trust me, some dick-head would go. 

Sunday, 30 September 2012

No more foodies any more

Wine-buff, travel-bug, sports-mad, news-hound: standard suffixes for the lazy conversationalist.  

Male nickname suffixes: nothing more than the addition of the letter y to a name (Matt-y, Smith-y).  I presume it's a y anyway.  It could be ie.  

On that theme, there's one particular ie that I find very irritating and that's the ie to be applied to the end of the word food.  Foodie.  Foodie.  Foodie.  Even writing the word causes a little bit of bile to rise up and catch the back of the throat like acidic backwash.

Do we really need a word for people who are passionate about their food, and even if we do, do we need a word that manages to sound trite, childish and smug all at the same time?  "I'm a real foodie" clearly attempts to convey the idea of a fashionable character with money and taste who is able at the drop of a hat to regale you with stories of restaurants where they have dined, the signature dishes they have consumed and even the personal history of the chef who may have cooked their dishes.

It's not just the word foodie either.  This breed of people have developed their own language and it's the language of the pretentious menu so loved by food bloggers.  Is some food on top of some other food?  it's been rested.  Does food have chili in it?  it's been 'spiked'.  Are there spices?  it's been given a 'kick'.  The meat was not bought from a farm, it was 'sourced'.  Do you have a random collection of separate entities on your plate?  Why, something must have been 'deconstructed'.  Does your meal look nothing like what you ordered?  I expect that it is the 'chef's take' on a classic.  

Menus seem to fall into two extremes, the yin and yang of culinary pretentiousness.  Either you are presented with some kind of Victorian novella to describe the dish or you are presented with a single word, iron-chef style.

To pick the first example of the former category that I came across: Roasted Creedy Carver (no idea) duck, spice pear gel (so I assume not a pear, but a gel made from pears, reminding me very much of a limited edition radox brand) , braised duck leg, turnip (seems a shame to have so little information about how this is cooked give the information lavished on the duck), English Ale-Gar reduction (a reduction involving ale?  A reduction involving agar?  Can you reduce agar?).  This level of waffle actually makes me yearn for the menu item that simply says 'mackerel' and I'll happily take pot luck with what's been done to my fish.  Many of these items come from the sort of restaurants that are designed for people who will quite happily book a table for 5.30pm on a Monday evening 3 months hence to ensure they have a foodie go-to experience to be unveiled at a weekend dinner party.

But the worst thing of all is that the person who symbolises the word foodie for me is Alex James, that uber-twat cheese-evangelist late of Blur and best chum of both DC and Clarkson.  Apparently (and this is pretty much a genuine quotation) his 20s were all about booze, his 30s about drugs and now his 40s are about food.  He finds it an amazing way to connect with people in a far more fundamental way than his music ever could.  Leaving this aside, the creator of tikka-masala cheese for Asda (now discontinued) and the soft 'Blue Monday' is the epitome of the type who feels food has some kind of inherent cool to it.  Food isn't a status symbol, but we do eat a lot of it and it's probably wise to make sure that it tastes nice and doesn't do too much damage to the planet.  That is all.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Let's get it trending!

I like Twitter.  I like it a lot.  I probably spend more time looking at it than I should.  One of the best things about it is that you only follow those people you want to; there's no need to listen to the opinions of those that are not of interest, unlike in real life.  Following, un-following, re-following - these are all natural processes, unlike Facebook, where un-friending people is a serious business and is tantamount to phoning someone to let them know that you do not like them any more.  There are many reasons that I begin to follow people and also many reasons why I stop following people.  Top of the second list is when someone informs me of something cute that their child has just done/said; closely following this is the title of this blog: "let's get it trending".

Social networking allows us to become activists, albeit in a very minor and totally non-committal manner.  An activist is defined as an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause but Twitter (and to an extent Facebook) mean that we can be activists (just for one day).  There are those that dedicate their lives to a cause, but "Let's get it trending" (LeGiT) is a the most banal, lowest effort and least likely to sway opinion method of activism.  It usually requires the individual to press one button.  Unfortunately, given the large number of people on Twitter and Facebook, the thoughtless pressing of a single button by numerous individual fingers allows an issue to 'trend' for a short time on Twitter, or clog up our Facebook feeds before it dies away, only to be forgotten. 

Just one example: #stopkony became a popular hashtag on Twitter following Jason Russell's film.  People were falling over themselves to press the retweet button, to do their part to save those 'invisible children', to feel better about themselves for becoming part of the movement to rid the world of the evil warlord Joseph Kony.  Has Kony been stopped? No.  Is he in prison? No.  Ironically enough, Jason Russell has ended up in prison (before Kony) after a bout of 'reactive psychosis' caused him to strip naked and masturbate in the streets of San Diego.  #stopkony doesn't trend any more; people have moved on and the Twitter activism has had no effect.  Such is the way of things and no real change can be brought about when, deep down, people don't really care about an issue.  When large number of people care, change can happen.  When small numbers of people care, or large numbers pretend they do by pressing a retweet button, nothing happens. 

Multiple changes of Facebook statuses represent another form of pointless, low-effort activism.  There was a Facebook campaign recently where we were all encouraged to change our profile pictures to our favourite cartoon character, all in the name of bringing an end to child abuse.  Really?  How exactly was this going to work?  Was the sudden appearance of lots of Droopies, Scooby-Doos and Pink Panthers really going to make child abusers think twice?  Of course not, it was to raise awareness that child abuse is a bad thing; but I suspect that we were all aware of that anyway.  In reality, it was a fun way of getting people to think they were doing something for a cause.

Gary Barlow and his wife recently lost their baby Poppy.  This is horrendous for them.  They should be allowed the privacy to grieve in private.  Instead, we get Louis Walsh demanding that we all retweet his own sympathy "to show respect".  Twitter glows with the hashtag #rippoppy.  Feels rather tasteless.  I showed my respect by leaving them in peace.

A young person is suffering from terminal cancer.  "Their final wish is to end up trending on twitter" is the quote.  This really happened.  Surely this is more than a little undignified.  No charity link, no suggestions for donations, no page directing you to offer condolences.  Just the retweet button, for the simple sympathiser.

The knee-jerk reaction: most recently to the Olympics.  Michael Vaughan (he should know better) claims that we need 1 hour of sport per day in Schools - "LeGiT".  Of course we do.  No need to think about the sold-off playing fields, the early finish in many Schools, the lack of competition infrastructure, the existence of sports clubs, the difficulty with employing qualified sports coaches for 60 minutes per day, the cost implications, the equipment implications.  As long as the tweet is written, then retweeted by millions, something must happen, won't it?  After all, we've done our bit for the cause and can rest easy.  We're all activists now.

Time to post the link to this blog - "LeGiT".

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Tomlinson v Harwood

In the red-eyed corner, homeless alcoholic and occasional newspaper salesman Ian Tomlinson.  He comes into this fight with two failed marriages, nine children (four of his own and five step-children; proof that he loves them to bits is evidenced by their names crudely tattooed on his hands).  He's wearing a blue Millwall football shirt with a grey Milwall t-shirt on top; it's not a good look.  He's not in great shape and looks older than his 47 years.  Homelessness can't help and cirrhosis of the liver brought on by his alcoholism means that Harwood is a strong favourite to take the bout.  Tomlinson is drunk, meaning that his movement is impaired and his reactions are slow and unpredictable.

In the blue-flashing-light corner, territorial support officer Simon Harwood.  He comes into the fight in good shape physically, though he's been up since 5am and this must count against him.  He's limbered up for the fight by pushing and palm-striking protesters and has roughed up a BBC cameraman for good measure.  His chequered past means it's tricky to predict the approach he'll take.  He's with the Met at the moment, though he's already moved from the Met to Surrey police once as a result of a misconduct hearing.  This fight could define his future.  Tomlinson is the crowd favourite and Harwood has little support from the crowd.  

Before it's started, it's all over.

Tomlinson is down, the result of a smart baton strike to the leg and a simple push.  He's down, up again and down again.  This time he stays down.  Police are pelted by protesters as they attempt to help Tomlinson.

Harwood barely notices the incident and certainly makes no note in his note book.  The whole bout has taken little more than a few seconds but it's enough to remove Ian Tomlinson from the face of the planet and to send ripples of shock a long way out from the centre of the incident.

Tomlinson has been unlawfully killed, it is decided.  No-one is guilty of this unlawful killing though Harwood's performance in court is so poor than it's almost as though he's trying to get himself sent down.  Further revelations about Harwood's past and character are released.  He is released.  

The Tomlinson family sense reimbursement and state that they will sue unless an admission of guilt is forthcoming; their own guilt or greed may be driving factors.  13 years since Ian Tomlinson left to live his own life away from them, he's now reinvented as a wonderful dad.  Look at the tattoos, they say...

There's some good news of course; Paul Lewis of the Guardian is named reporter of the year for his investigative journalism concerning the case.  Meanwhile, Syria dominates one or two of the middle pages...

Friday, 6 July 2012

heard and overheard in London yesterday

Here's a summary of my trip to London yesterday, documented by lines from me, my brother and some of the people with whom we interacted or just listened in on...

Totes; the barman recognises a girl who knows her liquor; OMG; that's not cote du rhone!; super-smart; it's mostly fernet branca and creme de menthe; sand eels are in season right now, in fact, everything's in season here; the latest conference in Rio was a disaster; super-rude; Peter Atkins saved my degree with his book on physical chemistry; isn't this just the entrance to the gift shop?; it's amazing just how big the champagne region is; super-annoying; my favourite is the crispy cod skin; these are the lengths to which we we go to prove we're not gay; I can't let anyone sit on these chairs after six; how do you cook the duck hearts?; how many different types of gin do you have?; Which one tastes least like gin?; the stag do in Nottingham was even worse than the one in Crawley; we need to make science more fun, not just about learning facts or even scientific process; we've been having a lot of problems with these barriers today; you can sit in the window and look at the tourists; isn't that your God-daughter?; I come from Lyon and I go back there three times a year; why don't we just share the clams?; I'll just have the beans and bacon; the rooms are really small; it's best on the fifth floor; good service on all lines. 

*if you're expecting something like The Wasteland, you'll be sorely disappointed

Friday, 29 June 2012

The curse of the commentator

I've just been watching a little of the Djokovic-Stepanek match at Wimbledon.  John MacEnroe has just informed me that Djokovic "has literally fallen to his knees".  Part of me delights at the first correct use of the word literally I've ever heard during sports commentary; we are normally bombarded with all sorts of erroneous literals such as "he's literally got ice in his veins" or "he's literally sweating blood out there".  On further reflection I was more irritated; why do I need a commentator to inform me what is obvious from the screen.  I can see that Djokovic had fallen to his knees (literally), why did I need someone to tell me?  

I often think that a good test of a commentator is that if they were a friend sitting next to you on the sofa, would you find their input useful as a clear enhancer of the match experience or would you consider them to be an irritating statto, endlessly pointing out the bleeding obvious?  I know which category most commentators fall into nowadays, but do play the game, either by asking a friend to remain silent whilst the sound is turned up or to listen to what your friend has to say with the sound turned down.

It wasn't always like this.  Dan Maskell was like your Grandad asleep in the sofa, awakening just in time for a quickly fired off "I say" at a winning shot before going back to his slumbers.  Whispering Ted Lowe might have spent 90% of his snooker commentary career in the pub for all we knew, so rare were his pearls of wisdom.  But pearls they were, and just like a couple that actually get on, the long silences weren't embarrassing.  They were happy to let the play speak for itself.

Radio commentary is always going to be about making the listener feel as though they were there, but TV commentary is harder.  The pictures speak for themselves and the commentator is there to provide knowledge and atmosphere.  I've had to turn off Wimbledon now (or at least turn the sound down) due to the morass of utter crap that was being forced into my ears.  I now know that Stepanek divides his time between Prague and Florida, the name of the third best Serbian tennis player, the name of the girlfriend of Djokovic and the names of the most famous newscasters on American TV.  It's just listening to two grown men talk boring pub chat.  Literally.

Football commentary is similarly afflicted, with the retirement of Barry Davies and the impending 100th birthday of John Motson.  We're now subjected to the Danny Baker-esque Robot Wars-style commentary of Jonathan Pearce on the beeb and the Prince Phillip of the commentary world Peter Drury on ITV.

Where's Sid Waddell when you need him?

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Patriot games

I wasn't in the country for the jubilee weekend.  I wasn't trying to make a point, it's just that's when half-term landed.

I didn't really have any opinion at all on the jubilee, either on a superficial weekend party level or on a more fundamental monarchistic level.  We have a monarchy; it's a bit archaic; most people don't think about it from day to day; it's one of Britain's USPs; the arguments are well rehearsed and well known.  But I did feel like the odd one out, albeit from a distance.  TV, Facebook and Twitter seemed to unearth no end of people with very strong opinions on the jubilee.  It was impossible to be in the middle, or as I felt I was - far away watching the whole thing from a distance.  'So proud to be British' seemed to be one recurring statement, whilst those on the other side of the fence screamed 'tax dodging scum' at the Queen through a variety of mocked-up Facebook photos.  Two bubbles had been set up, but this was no Venn diagram and the bubbles had no point of intersection.

So let's take the first set of people, the 'patriots' for want of a better word.  A patriot is defined as one who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests with devotion.  Was that what the people who lined the Mall were doing?  Of course not, but they had turned up in the rain to wish happy birthday to the Queen, which at least falls under the heading of supporting one's country, even if one isn't tied into defending it or even necessarily loving it.  I wonder how many of the Queen's favourite singers appeared?  I know the Queen mother had a penchant for George Formby, but she's dead and in 2012 we were treated to a slightly odd selection.  They'd clearly gone for longevity over popularity, with Paul McCartney, Cliff, Madness and Rolf Harris benefitting simply from existing for over three decades in the nation's consciousness.  Quite how people were able to feel proud to be British watching Kylie, Rolf and Stevie Wonder was uncertain, though maybe it had something to do with the fact that the NHS has managed to keep Rolf alive past the age of 100.  I don't know anyone who listens to Paul McCartney post-1970, Cliff or Rolf Harris ever (and certainly not for pleasure) and I don't know anyone that finds Lenny Henry funny.  It didn't stop the patriots though.  Even though it probably wasn't what the Queen wanted, or what they wanted and mostly wasn't British, the tweets about how proud they kept being sent out, before dissolving slowly into the twitt-ether to be replaced by other similar messages.  None of it felt like a celebration of British-ness, British history, British music or British culture.  We're far too worried about accusations of jingoism, racism, empirism and many other isms beside.  So it ended up being a play-it-safe, MOR rock concert with inoffensive acts plucked randomly from the last 50 years of show-business.  If this is what makes you proud to be British, great.  

It was nice to see thousands of people line the Mall on Monday night, though it was inevitable that it would be business as usual on Tuesday.  And so it seemed; much of the jubilee spirit seemed to have evaporated as the main new story moved from how 'humbled' the Queen felt to how some jubilee workers were forced to sleep rough under a bridge.  Seems like we're fine when listening to Sir Paul, but when the music stops, we're a little less proud to be British.

It was nice to see that the effort and conviction visible in the anarchism of those that opposed the jubilee was just as MOR as the music at the jubilee itself.  The re-release of the Sex Pistols 'God save the Queen' proved that things really do get less shocking with age (35 years in this case) and it seemed to have an effect more akin to basic nostalgia than to stir the nation's disaffected youth.  The inevitable FB campaign to get the song to number 1 seems like a very tired idea now and even butter-advertiser extraordinaire Jonny Rotten thought the idea was feeble.  Sharing the odd photo on FB of the Queen as a tax-dodger felt like a rather timid way of railing against the monarchy.  It's one thing to adopt a lazy air of resignation when Lenny Henry is on stage, but it's even more pathetic to do so when you think you're being anti-establishment.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Alice in Troll-land

Never one to shy away from the big issues, I thought I'd put the collapse of Europe to one side and instead concentrate on a mild spat between two journalists, one of which no-one had ever heard of before a couple of days ago.

In the blue corner: Giles Coren is a journalist for the Times.  He published a piece last weekend in which he worried about his young daughter's safety and talked about how he yearned for a return to the comfy womb that was his Prep School.  He's an entertaining writer.  As a newspaper columnist and one who revels in being provocative (mostly by the use of innuendo and mild ranting) and as one who is a regular user of Twitter, part of his raison d'etre is to stir up opinion, some of which will nod in sage support of him and some of which will inevitably violently disagree.  As someone who wrote a book entitled 'anger management', he's clearly an irascible fellow and likes nothing more than a good old spat on Twitter.

In the red corner: a 23 year old journalist called Alice Vincent (she's the non-famous one in this story) and hence information on her is limited.  Having read his article, she tweeted Giles with the following:

 "Columnists basing their opinions around their chldren. So yawn. Your column today is one step up from a mumsnet blogpost, @gilescoren"

Despite the use of the word 'so' in this context, which is irritating in itself, and the fact that she wrote a later tweet breaking up his name using an apostrophe (think Gile's instead of Giles'), it's actually rather a good put-down.  Coren clearly sees himself as something of an alpha male - the enfant terrible of the animal husbandry and allotment world, if you will.  Vincent manages to strike two blows - the first is the attack on Coren's own journalistic integrity and the second is achieved by comparing him to something he would regard as total anathema.  However, she's clearly struck a raw nerve, because Coren's response demonstrated just how far the bile had risen:

"Go f*ck yourself, you barren old hag

It's concise, pithy, straight to the point; everything we look for in quality journalism.  In fact, if one looks through Coren's timeline, it's littered with profanity and playground insults.  He seems to rather like it, and I guess that's his prerogative; you certainly know what the risks are when you choose to insult the man with the tiny beard.  He has replied to a direct tweet from a woman he doesn't know, in which she expressed a withering opinion on his latest article.  His response is less offensive in many ways, bearing in mind that it strikes nowhere near the heart and is offensive only in a very abstract manner.  The fact that she's 23 means that she's not old, it's unsurprising that she's childless (it would be more surprising if she were sprogged up) and though she's no Venus de Milo, she's far from being a hag.

The most boring aspect of the whole spat is the amount of guff that it's generated on Twitter, with (according to Coren) around 85% of the Twitterati supporting him.  Supporting him in what?  The right to use rude words?  The right to take umbrage when his work is criticised? The right to have children and then talk vaguely about them in his column?  The fact of the matter is that Coren is just being Coren.  It's what he does, it's his USP.  He's the gentleman farmer in the wax anorak who talks about provenance of asparagus one minute and calls someone a c*nt the next.  It's what we middle-class folk love.  Alice Vincent is just a catty wannabe journalist who deserves all the abuse he chooses to give her.  And besides, she started it.  She should be happy that she's got a rise from him and she should let his clumsy factually incorrect insults wash off her like rainwater from a fresh-picked beet.

Accusations of 'Trolling' seem a trifle overblown.  A troll (for those who don't know) is someone who posts inflammatory messages in an online community, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response.  There's no trolling to see here.  in fact, there's nothing much to see here.  Move along please.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be

All that is formulaic does not have to be bad.  When sports teams hit on a winning formula either of personnel or tactics they would be foolish to move away from it.  And of course there's something to be said for sticking to what you know (incidentally, I notice that Feeder have a new album out).  TV seems to work on a similar principle, namely that you should be inventive only until you stumble across something that people like, then you make sure to give them more of the same until they are sick of it.  For evidence, see Popstars, Popstars (the rivals), Pop Idol, American Idol, Fame Academy, The X factor, Britain's got Talent.  The name changes, but generally the product stays the same.  Of course ITV are most guilty, but the BBC have to hold their hands up in at least two areas.  The first is the now-ubiquitous travel/cookery programme, many of which tend to focus on the British Isles in a sort of upmarket Man v Food manner, including vast quantities of whitecurrants, samphire and cob-nuts, whilst Giles Coren or the Hairy Bikers tell us what we should be eating more of, and isn't it a shame how what used to be orchards is now a ring-road around Stoke.  The second is the nostalgia shows, and keen to live up to their name, the nostalgia shows have been away for a time but are now back with a vengence.

The BBC decided to go large on the nostalgia show around the year 2000 (a sensible time to look back), and spent every Saturday night with a programme entitled 'I love 1970' one week, followed by 'I love 1971' the following week.  The feeling was that they knew it was possible to cobble together an entire night's TV on one of their two channels by simply showing repeats, as long as the repeats all happened to be from the same year.  The glue that held these programmes together took the form of various comedians and social commentators (wherever else would Stuart Maconie and Gina Yashere come together?) whose role was to exclaim 'I can't believe we all used to wear leg-warmers' at the end of a clip where people wore leg-warmers, or 'I can't believe we all used to wear 3-foot high top-hats with mirrors on them' when a clip of Slade was shown.

The popularity of these programmes was such that when the 'I love 1970s' series came to a close in late 2000, they simply wheeled out an 'I love 1980s' series.  This was followed by the 'I love 1990s' series.  It was more difficult to class the 'I love 1999' programme strictly as nostalgia, bearing in mind that the show aired in 2001.  I can't believe I used to wear that?  Not really - clothes from 1999 made up the most fashionable items in my wardrobe at that time.

The Beeb have re-introduced the nostalgia again recently with a series called 'The 70s'.  Apart from the fact that something from 1972 might turn up alongside something from 1976, rather than being separated by four Saturday nights, it doesn't smack of anything original.  But people still seem keen to lap it up.  But who is actually allowed to feel nostalgic whilst watching kids bouncing on space-hoppers or riding Rayleigh Choppers?  Surely only those people that were bouncing on space-hoppers or riding Choppers at the time?  So anyone from the ages of about 5-15 in, say, 1976 can feel nostalgic, which means that only those people aged between 41 and 51 now really be experiencing a feeling of nostalgia, or at least a heightened sense of nostalgia.  These people are experiencing genuine nostalgia; they are whistfully remembering a time gone by, a happy time, a simpler time and a time about which they can say 'I was there'.  I'm not nostalgic for space-hoppers because I never bounced on one, nor did I know anyone that did.  I'm no more nostalgic for those squidgy orange balls than I am for penny farthings or Arkwright's spinning Jennys.

But nostalgia affects us all, and it seems that we're able to feel nostalgic about the past, even if it wasn't our past.  I watched a programme about George Formby last week, which included clips of many of his bawdy songs (most of which seemed to be about his penis, or his desire to spy on women through windows).  Yet by the end of the programme I was convinced that the London riots were pretty much a direct result of the decrease in the number of people playing the ukelele and that what this country needed was a mass-exodus to the Blackpool ballroom to listen to a load of George's old music-hall classics.  I got rather carried away, as you can probably tell.  

We're all keen to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, and tend to remember just how bad today is compared to the halcyon days of yesteryear.  Wattle and daub houses and rampant syphilis, that's when times were truly great.  Mind you, things can be taken too far.  The Happy Mondays are back on tour.

Friday, 20 April 2012

You never see it coming

It's a well-known fact that someday, inevitably, we turn into our parents.  Habits, phrases and behavioural quirks that we swore would never become part of our daily routine end up sneaking in like a weasel through some form of genetic osmosis.  Resistance is futile and it's safest to accept the inevitable and enjoy the ride.  There's a great difference between noticing certain traits that have been handed down from parent to child and that specific point where it's clear that the transformation is complete, but you'll know it when it comes.  I did.

For some time now I have been walking into rooms for something, forgetting what it was, doing something else, then remembering what it was only by walking back to the exact location at which I first realised there was something I needed to get in the first place.  I have on various occasions found my pen in the toothbrush holder, my toothbrush in the fridge and the milk in the cupboard where we keep the teacups, but even this didn't strike me as marking the definitive move over to the parent-side.  I was expecting the change to be rubber-stamped the day I rushed to answer the phone because a phone rang on the TV programme I was watching (which didn't sound at all like the house phone) and I've been watching out for this particular event hawk-like for some time.  Maybe this was the problem and I must have taken my eye off the ball, because a couple of weeks ago I made a conscious decision to not simply complete the transformation, but to smash right through any kind of behavioural barrier than may have existed between myself and the intimate generation above.

The County cricket season started extraordinarily early this year, in the first week of April.  March had been balmy, giving hope that this early start might be justified weather-wise.  But the Gods of cricket have not built up a formidable reputation for nothing, and on Thursday 5th April a Baltic wind swept the Country, heralding the first day of the County Championship.  Undeterred, I headed to perennial strugglers Leicestershire and their pretty Grace Road ground.  A surprisingly large crowd (not quite into triple figures, but this is division 2) had gathered to see if Leicestershire could make a good start against Glamorgan.  Not quite a battle of the Titans admittedly but Glamorgan were the only side that Leicestershire had managed to beat in the last 12 months.  Two balls into the match, Leicestershire were 0 for 2.  When I turned up, they were 7 for 3.  I took my seat next to a woman, at least I think it was a woman; it was difficult to tell because she was wearing an anorak and furry hood tied tightly so as to resemble a periscope; a tartan rug was wrapped around the knees.  It was the sort of day on which Captain Oates might have stayed inside.  Still, as the scene unfolded before me, it still didn't occur to me that I had completed the transformation by merely being here at this Cathedral of cricket on such a polar day.  However, as lunchtime approached and I delved into my bag to collect the goodies I had brought, it became all very apparent.  Crisps - check; Wispa - check; bottle of water - check.  Wait a minute!  3 separate tupperware pots!  How did they get in there?  As if in a dream, I had carefully placed the main ingredients for my picnic into different sized tupperwares.  There was one for the pork pie (it was Leicestershire remember), a smaller one for my slab of cheddar and the smallest was reserved for a smear of Branston pickle.  Yes, really - Branston pickle in a tupperware.  This was the moment I had been expecting for some years and I could imagine my Dad sitting there, next to me on the cold plastic seat, under leaden skies, and as another Welsh medium-pacer of little regard turned at the top of his run-up I could see Dad nodding to me with a mixture of pride and pity: 'you're one of us now, son'.  

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Table for One

I might have entitled this post 'Solo versus Social'.  I've never been particularly clear on the rules regarding activities that should be done only with others as opposed to alone.  I don't mean that I'm entirely oblivious to the fact that sex should ideally involve a partner (though the solo alternative according to Woody Allen is at least sex with someone you like) and that social reading (i.e. over someone's shoulder) is a hugely irritating habit (right up there with the feeling you get in the car when someone fails to acknowledge the fact that you have let them out of a side-street; would a wave of the hand really be so much trouble?).  But I'm less clear on some of the following: cinema, eating out, holidays, going to the pub...these activities are generally regarded as things one does socially, though I think that most of them sit equally comfortably in the solo category.  

The cinema is still seen as being a 'date location' and I do wonder why there should be a stigma attached to watching films in the cinema alone.  The whole experience relies on silence and concentration, assuming one is beyond the age where the 'date' merely involves necking in the back row of Lethal Weapon 3.  Nevertheless, I always feel a pang of shame when I request my single ticket, and tend to put the word 'just' in front of my ticket order each time.  This is odd; the films I watch solo tend to be in the afternoon, and the vast majority of other paying customers have gone solo too - there's solidarity in numbers for you.  You certainly get a varied crowd, with the oddest set of creatures being discovered at the Ritzy for 'Bobby Fischer against the World'; I guess there aren't that many fans of chess in Brixton.  I did rather pity the soul who turned up solo to watch 'Antichrist', though maybe the embarrassment of watching genital mutilation with a friend outweighs the embarrassment of having the rest of the cinema think you're really into that kind of stuff.     

The rules of eating out seem to be that it's an activity best done with friends, family or a partner and never alone.  This is not something I agree with.  Eating out alone, particularly at lunch, feels rather decadent - it's something that Gatsby might do.  You get to order exactly what you want, your wine choice always complements your food (not someone else's) and in between courses you get to read a book (be honest, on some dining occasions it would be great to be able to get out the book even when not going solo).  If you should feel embarrassed when dining alone, all you need to do is take a notepad and pencil along with you.  At various stages you should sniff what's on the end of the fork and take long lingering looks around the dining room.  Maybe order two starters and ask the waiter for a cleaner knife.  If you go to all this trouble, you might convince people that you're a food critic simply doing his or her day job.  

One should not be afraid of holidaying alone, but it is worth bearing in mind two simple rules.  Firstly, go to the US, where your accent will be enough to gather together a whole set of new chums on day one (disclaimer: this will not work in Boston, where you are still regarded as the hated oppressor).  Secondly, you can make the practice sound less weird by simply describing your holiday as 'travelling' (note that though there's no set definition for this term you're unlikely to convince many people that a long weekend in Dublin is a valid use of the word).

Sorry, I can't do anything for you if you have the desire to sit alone in the pub.  That's just weird and you should be ashamed of yourself.  Freak.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

When Noel met Damien

If asked to name several things we like and dislike, I'm certain that most people could answer instantaneously.  I like Indian food, football, America and a whole host of other things besides.  I dislike The Sun, gastropubs and Ryanair and a whole host (probably the list is longer) of other things besides.  It's rare that two things on either list coincide and rarer still that something from one list coincides with something from the other.  It's unlikely that I'm going to find a decent curry in America, and I hope that I'll never find myself reading The Sun on a Ryanair flight to Dublin (that's the airport named DUBLIN (Prestwick) in case you were wondering).  I refuse to watch comedy awards ceremonies just in case the unholy trinity of James Corden, John Bishop and Michael McIntyre appear on screen at the same time.

It was with a certain sense of trepidation therefore that I approached last night's Channel 4 introduction to the Tate's retrospective on the work of Damien Hirst, combining as it did two of my 'dislikes', namely Hirst's work and the presenter of the programme, Noel Fielding.  I don't find Hirst irritating at all, though I believe there's little artistic merit in his back catalogue.  I have always found Fielding's popularity a total mystery.  Nevertheless, it was with an open mind that I watched; maybe this was the show that would open up to me hitherto un-noticed subtleties in Hirst's work and perhaps Fielding was the man required to delve into Hirst's particular brand of artistic genius and have a good stir round. 

In fact, the programme involved Damien talking in quite a bored manner about his output from the last 25 years while Fielding tiptoed around him like a Schoolboy needing the toilet, clearly in raptures just to be near the great man.  Anything that Hirst said was eulogised by Fielding as though seminal words of wisdom dropped from his mouth like pearls every time he opened it.

Fielding started by comparing Hirst to the Devil, and was then amazed to find out that he was 'quite nice'.  Hashtag: insight.  We later found out that he 'wasn't like Dr Death at all' (whoever he might be), but instead was 'charming'.  Good to clear that one up.  We were told on many occasions that he was the first person to do things (put a shark in an art gallery, cut a cow in half) as if this alone was indicative of genius.  Fielding was once an Art student himself (which is why I suppose he was allowed near this programme) but his own interest in Art seemed to go little further than a fascination with the shocking.

It was odd that we kept returning to the originality in Hirst's work, bearing in mind how tired and un-shocking it now looks.  Originality in itself is not enough to justify great Art, and just because no-one has done it before does not mean that it's worthwhile.  Brian Sewell was afforded just a few minutes of the programme, but he was allowed to make the point that just because the shark is in an Art gallery, this is not sufficient to classify it as a work of Art.  Even if this was the point that Hirst was trying to make, he was about 80 years out of date with this idea, first introduced by Marcel Duchamp in 1917.  

We then moved on to a new concept: the shark is dead, but it looks as if it was alive, and therefore it makes us question our own mortality.  Really?  Does the same thing not occur every time we see un-squashed roadkill on the A1?  Hirst suggested that his fascination with death came from School, when he was asked to handle a human skull.  He said that he was not able to reconcile the fact that this had once belonged to a living human being.  This hardly shows great imagination on his part and presents us with the simplistic and eternal question about the nature of soul - the fixed atoms and molecules from which we are made and the extra undefinable something that makes us human and individual.  Hirst is posing no new questions; he is not holding up a mirror to life or death; he is not producing works of Art, unless you consider that there is a certain beauty in the animal itself, either on the outside or inside.

I have been to see Hirst's work on several occasions over the years: his Pharmacy (the only part of his work I do have time for), his Twelve Apostles, his flayed goats with syringes and pills, his cow skulls with embedded scissors and his recent blue skull paintings (the last one did nothing for me save to prove that Hirst isn't very good at painting and in this sense only it's one of the most daring things he's ever done).

Much of Hirst's work boils down to the question: 'Is it Art?'.  For me the answer is yes, just not very good or interesting Art.  It's a bit like an OK-ish piece of GCSE coursework.  You'd have no problem grading it as a B (or maybe a little higher), but it has little to say beyond that.  I usually tend to define modern Art as being all about asking questions and engendering emotions, irrespective of whether those emotions are positive or negative.  Hirst's work leaves me with a feeling of 'meh'.  He's another example of a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Just like many of the exponents of Britpop managed to burgle careers out of the nation's mid-90s obsession with 'Cool Britannia', so Hirst and the other YBAs managed to ride by for many years on the fact that what they were doing became fashionable for a time, despite the limitations of its Artistic merit.

I might go along to the Hirst retrospective, but only to wait outside to ask the paying customer the old Sex Pistols question:

'Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?'

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The importance of being liked

One of the best questions to ask children (especially if you want them to talk amongst themselves and leave you alone for a while) is this: 'if you could have one super-power for the day, what would it be?'  These discussions can go on for hours.  Would I choose a cloak of invisibility? the ability to fly? an ability (inspired by the advert) that means that everything I touch turns into skittles (a sort of candy-based King Midas)?  All of these would no doubt prove useful, but bringing a sense of adult realism to the proceedings, I think that the ability to make people like you is probably the most important power once can possess.  I don't mean the ability to make a small section of your friends like you because you always buy the first round, I mean a like-ability so strong that makes even people you have never met break out into a smile at the mere mention of your name. 

It's a universal rule of sport that you like the players that play for your team and you dislike virtually everyone else involved with that sport.  When players are purchased by your team, you immediately like them and when players are sold from your team, they are disliked as soon as the pen signs the new contract.  Most of us would admit to having a soft-spot for players who aren't currently playing for our teams, but they tend to be in no direct competition with the players we idolise.  I don't supposed that Lionel Messi is likely to be running at the Palace back four any time soon.

The one player who seems to buck the trend is Mario Balotelli, the Manchester City striker.  This man seems to inspire love and admiration from everyone.  There are numerous (mostly apocryphal) stories about him all over the internet, and most seem to exist only to promote him as a sort of cross between black-and-white slapstick comedian Norman Wisdom and philanthropic walnut Mother Theresa.  He seems to spend his time paying library fines for all and sundry, buying petrol for strangers or going mental in Argos, purchasing an scaletrix set when he should have been buying an ironing board for his Mum.  People are keen to believe these stories too; Balotelli is held up as the anti-footballer; he's what we would be like if we played in the Premiership.  Not for us the tedium of rhetorial interviews hung heavy with the dissemination of carefully media-trained non-information.  Not for us the cliched footballer's night out on Cristal champagne in celebrity-studded London clubs.  We understand far more the wish to set off fireworks with our mates in the kitchen, or late-night visits to the flesh-clubs of the North East, or late-night curries the day before a big game.  We understand the passion of the fans and the need for a passionate player to inspire them.

But isn't Balotelli also the epitome of everything we hate about modern day footballers?  He's over-paid, brattish, surly, under-performing, involved in continual training-ground bust-ups and is totally un-apologetic for his actions.  Joey Barton must be wondering why he ends up the vilified hate-figure, and yet Balotelli is clutched to the breast of the Nation like a favorite comfort blanket.  

Part of the country's love for Balotelli is because we feel sorry for him, which is all rather patronising and I doubt he could care less.  He is Ghanain by birth and was raised from a young age by his adopted parents in Italy.  He speaks lovingly about his Italian mother and father, with an endearing child-like innocence.  He has been the victim of racist abuse and chanting in his adopted country and perhaps we need to show Balotelli the love that the Italians have been unwilling to.  Part of the country's love is linked to the fact that he is genuinely entertaining on the pitch; he is super-talented, but is as likely to be subbed at half-time having shown little interest or effort as he is to score the goal that wins the game.

But perhaps the main reason that we love Balotelli is that we can relate to him.  We have a national aversion to perfect sportsmen like Michael Schumacher or Pete Sampras.  These people are born winners, racking up trophies with a single-mindedness that we cannot comprehend.  When we accuse them of being devoid of personality, it is simply because there is nothing in their life that is anything like our own.  We accuse them of being automatons, with their drive for excellence being mistaken for a lack of humour, grace and above all, fallibility.  This is why our sporting heroes always tend to be the most fallible (think George Best or Shane Warne).  We can't connect with Best or Warne's genius on the pitch, but we can with their drinking bouts or saucy texting.  Balotelli is the link between us and the perfect sportsmen and women; he allows us to connect with these higher forms of athletic life. He's not so very different from us, and therefore we're not so very different from Mike and Pete after all.  

We may have no idea what it feels like to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon, but we'd all rather play with toy cars than do the ironing, wouldn't we?

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Much more than a spoonful (of Sugar)

I went to a pub quiz in Peterborough two weeks ago.  It was to celebrate a friend's birthday and I think we were being ironic.  It was dark by the time we parked up so I could be wrong, but the pub seemed to be in an industrial estate; I was reliably informed that this was the posh part of Peterborough though it still looked a little like the Slough Trading estate.  The quiz was supposed to be the main event of course, and a large number of teams had turned up.  In the end, it wasn't the most highbrow affair, with three of the four rounds being 'General Knowledge' (or at least questions taken from the GK section of the quizbook that the barman got for Christmas).  The other round was the more intriguing 'Things that happened in 2010' - not exactly topical, but I was looking forward to a few brain-teasers about the recent local history of this Town.  Not a bit of it - each question started with 'Who won...' and ended with the name of a reality TV show.  Dancing on Ice, X-Factor, Strictly were all there, though I was disappointed to note an absence of winners from ratings success 'Pointless'.  I'm not sure if we got any right - my only stab was at the winner of The Apprentice 2010, which I got wrong.  I think this has a lot to do with the fact that he/she has disappeared without trace (though may be on QVC I suppose) or maybe because all these pinstriped wannabe Sugars just tend to merge into one homogenised mass of macho soundbites and trouser suits after so many years.

I always used to think that The Apprentice was the standard bearer for non-shit reality TV.  At least there was some talent involved, a worthwhile prize at the end and some genuine business-based tasks for some of the more promising of Britain's young business minds to get their teeth into.

This has now disappeared, and the series is yet another lazy tired piece of reality dross, being flogged to death by an unimaginative corporation to a public that seem to be able to stomach year after year of formulaic posturing.  There are many flaws and aspects that really grate, but here are the worst IMO:

1.  The show is no longer about finding 'The Apprentice'.  The winner now gets to set up a new business using some of Alan Sugar's money.  In fact, after the first series, the show become less about finding an apprentice at all and more about creating water-cooler TV where pushy 20 and 30-something business people could play-off against each other for who had the more cringe-worthy soundbite.  Listening to 21 year-old yuppies talking about how they 'always get results' and 'don't care who they trample over to get them' gets rather tired by series 8, though the line of 'don't tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon' was a personal favorite.

2.  The tasks themselves are the same every series, and in the same order.  There's the one where they have to make a food product (ice-cream, ready-meals) and then sell them (farmers' market, tube station); there's the one where they get a mystery set of items they need to buy for as little money as possible; there's the one where they get interviewed by some of Alan Sugar's cronies (questions tend to be along the lines of 'you're not very good are you?' and other playground insults); there's the one where they have to go and buy some original Art and then sell it on.  The tasks are of course designed to make good TV, not to identify anyone with particular business sense.

3.  The ridiculous set-up of every task.  This usually begins with a phone-call from Alan's PA at 4.45am, asking them to be at a London Landmark (British Museum, Tower Bridge) by 6am.  'The cars will pick you up in 15 minutes'.  I'm never sure why this should be part of the test.  Do all top businessmen and women have to prove their skill in the early morning and limited make-up time, or are we just supposed to think that Alan's up selling Amstrads at this time?  The links between the locations and the tasks provide the most entertainment in the whole show, and I've not once guessed the nature of the task from the start location.  Usually Alan's cronies will be standing six feet apart, when Alan makes an entry between them from a lift or a pile of dry ice.  His first few lines tend to go something like:

'We're in the British Library; there's lots of books here; books have pages; Elaine Paige once sung Total Eclipse of the Heart; lambs have hearts; you're going to Smithfield market to buy offal which you then need to sell to paying customers at St John's Wood tube station....

4.  Team names.  Why?  This merely adds to the cringe-factor as they come up with names that sound like the ones rejected from 90s TV series Gladiators (think insignia, prime, triumph, Hunter (ok, so maybe he was a Gladiator...)

5.  The fact that Alan Sugar is now thought of by the new generation as someone to whom people should aspire.  When I was growing up, he was the person that got his fingers burned at Spurs and whose company made crap computers.  He's now Branson and Trump rolled into one, pretending that his Essex offices occupy most of the Gherkin and regaling us with tales of how he built up a business from nothing (every week).

6.  The way they hold their mobile phones as though they're suspiciously sniffing the area where you connect the charger.

Or maybe the most disappointing thing is that so many people still tune in.  The Apprentice is now adopting the old Perry/Croft maxim: if you just do and say the same thing every week, people will like it.  It's like a big pin-striped comfort blanket.  And I don't care who I hurt by writing this blog, because I'm on my way to the top and I won't stop trampling on people until I get there.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Whatever happened to the enfant terribles?

One sure-fire way to guarantee that you've made it in life is when you've been awarded your very own epithet.  It's that short phrase that characterises you and before your name is even mentioned everyone knows what kind of person is being discussed. It's even better if the epithet leads to you directly; surely there's none finer than the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' Lord Byron, and at the opposite end of the scale I'm sure that King Ethelred wouldn't have been too happy with his own moniker 'The Unready'.  Harsher still is to be found in the list of Ottoman Sultans, where sandwiched in between Ahmed III ('The Warrior') and Osman III ('The Devout') lies the rather unforunate sounding Mahmud I ('The Hunchback'). 

Various people have been given the epithet 'enfant terrible', and it doesn't seem to matter what field you are in.  All of the following have been described as ETs at one time or another: you can be the enfant terrible of the kitchen (Marco Pierre-White, Tom Aikens), the enfant terrible of music (Jonny Rotten) or the enfant terrible of comedy (Ben Elton).

Marco Pierre-White ejected diners from his restaurant if they made negative comments about the food and cut open a chef's whites when he complained of being too hot; Aikens had 2 michelin stars by the time he was 26, became obsessed by detail and even branded one of his sous chefs with a hot palette knife for failing to make his exacting standards; Jonny Rotten was the epitome of anarchic youth in the late 1970s and the face of the punk movement; Ben Elton was a lead figure in the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s, attacking Thatcher's Government with his original brand of left-wing satire.

But what's happened to these principled passionate firebrands now?  Elton is more likely to be seen at the Royal Variety Performance, toadying up to the Royals as he counts out the cash from the uber-dull tourist trap Queen musical 'We Will Rock You'.  Aikens is now a 'celebrity' chef, appearing on the mind-bendingly awful 'Ironchef UK', Marco now advertises Knorr Chicken stock cubes and John Lydon has become the face of British butter.  That's right - butter.  Growing up has never seemed more dull.  Where once Lydon offered a voice for disenchanted youth, he now champions one particular brand of dairy produce.  Where once Elton dripped with political satire, he now drips only with cash.

The enfant terribles have become national treasures by virtue of not dying along the way.  We shouldn't be drawing these washed-out folks to our collective breast, we should be putting them out to pasture, their work done.  There's plenty of quiet places for them to go, like weekends on radio 2.  When the great old British eccentrics become simply part of the furniture, it is indeed a sad day. 

And to give you an idea of what a proper enfant terrible looks like, here's Ken Russell's obituary:


Barking mad, and quite brilliant.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Happiness in Bangor

It's half term now, or Long Exeat as we call it, and I'm enjoying the week off doing very little apart from reading books.  I've been reading the 'Weird Tales' of H P Lovecraft, which are pretty weird in a Victorian Gothic ghosts and ghouls-type way.  I've obviously not switched off from School completely though, because I came across an article in last week's TES which makes Lovecraft seem like the epitome of normality.

The article is by Maths teacher Jonny Griffiths, who teaches at a Sixth Form College in Norfolk.  In it he attempts to explain that whereas we are all frustrated by the low motivation and work ethic of some pupils, the opposite can also be the case, and pupils do exist that are 'driven' and 'obsessed' and sometimes these can be 'just as draining'.  He gives the example of one of his pupils called 'Michael' (this can't help reminding me of the Franz Ferdinand song, which is unfortunate given its strong homoerotic message).  Anyway, Michael is an able mathematician, who has done well in his A level modules, but is worried that he has lost some marks along the way that may mean he does not secure the A grade he needs to attend Cambridge.   

Here's where Jonny steps in, and says: 

'Michael, apart from you, who cares what you get in your A level?'. [controversial line, needs some back up]

His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.
'I mean, I care, of course,' I add, swiftly. 'But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?' [classic argument fallacy - limit the options, neither of which sound that great to me]
"Michael is too stunned to reply."

Later of course, the moment that Jonny is right all along dawns on Michael in a cringe-worthy final paragraph.  Michael answers a question in class (wrongly) and is corrected by another member of the class.  He then turns to look at Jonny, a smile breaks out over his face, and then he realises....what?  That he was crap at Maths all along, that he might as well go to Bangor, that he doesn't really give a shit either way, or maybe Franz Ferdinand were right all along, and that he and Jonny should head down to Disco X right there and then.

The real problem here is that there is a very important and valid point that Jonny is trying to get across, but that it's been lost in a clumsily-worded article.  The problem is that the current examination system has heaped extra pressure on pupils, pressure that did not exist until about ten years ago when the examinations went modular.

One of the main purposes of examinations (and I do mean examinations, not education) at Sixth Form level is to sort a very large number of pupils into two distinct categories: those that go to university and those that don't.  Within the former category, the examinations need to assign pupils to universities and courses that are appropriate to their interests, talents and ambitions.  Students at university should be appropriately challenged academically, but it's wrong for someone to end up on a course that is too demanding for them as to end up on one which is conceptually beneath them.

So what's the problem?

1.  You can do the exams several times

Some papers can be taken four times through the course of the Sixth Form, and only your best mark counts.  Most universities don't care how many times you had to take the paper to gain the best mark.  

2.  Some subjects are much easier than others

Studies show that there's about a two-grade difference between the hardest and easiest subjects.  This means that the same pupil (without specific talents in one subject over another) would get two grades higher for, say Film Studies, than they would for Physics.  Even within the same subject, the percentages of A grades are different depending on what exam board you take.  The differences here are smaller, but not negligible.

3.  You can pay for examiners to come in and tell you the answers 


4.  Formulaic examinations

I very rarely hear pupils telling me that they don't understand topics, or that they don't possess the knowledge to be able to answer questions.  The oft-most cited reason for losing marks is 'examination technique', as in 'I knew everything about that question, but my exam technique let me down'.  Never mind; all we have to do is work through a filing cabinet-full of past papers, and all the examination technique problems will disappear.  Except they won't; all that will happen is that you will do the same style of question so many times that you've developed a rote manner for answering that particular question.  It doesn't matter that this particular brand of technique will never be required again, so long as they help you gain that A.  These formulaic examinations also reward a particular type of pupil, the automative 't-crosser'.  This type of person is useful if you want a large data-entry to be completed accurately, but they aren't necessarily the kind of creative thinker that's going to deal with the population/economic/energy crises.

5.  Grade inflation

1980: 8% of A level grades were A.  2011: 8% of A level grades were A*, with around 30% at grade A.  Grade inflation is happening, and it's not that teachers are getting better or pupils are getting cleverer.  It's also not that exams are getting easier, which is often seen to be the public's belief.  It's simply that much more teaching is focused on how to pass these exams.  This isn't really what teachers want, but this is what has happened, and it's understandable why.  By cramming so many grades awarded at the top end, we are struggling to differentiate between pupils, and this is the reason that Jonny's pupil Michael feels quite so under pressure.  He knows that to get AAA twenty years ago would put him in a real academic elite; nowadays, this isn't good enough.  He needs A* grades, maybe two of them.  He's stuck with 'gymnastics scoring', where 9.975 is good, and 9.895 is frankly rubbish.

6.  Unfair grading

Every now and again, I mention to non-teaching friends of mine that it's possible to get 320/400 marks at A level to gain an A*, and to get 379/400 and gain an A.  They think it's ridiculous and so do I, but it's the truth.  Bearing in mind that top universities use A* grades in their offers, they're not even certain of separating out the top pupils by marks any more.   

7.  Extra filtering

Pupils can now be filtered out of top courses on their GCSE grades, and it's very unlikely that anyone will get an offer from Oxbridge without at least 6A* grades on their CV.  But why does a Maths GCSE matter for a brilliant linguist and why should an aspiring medic be discriminated against for being only quite good at French?  Pupils at different Schools take different numbers of GCSE subjects, and some subjects are harder than others.  Due to the grade inflation point above, universities need extra ways of filtering out pupils.  Looking at GCSE scores makes little more sense than looking at hair colour.

So what's the solution?

Place more emphasis on problem solving in examinations; take away an over-reliance on past papers; add an abilities test to the end of Sixth Form examinations; scrap GCSEs; allow universities to set their own entrance papers; do away with coursework; don't allow re-takes; cap the number of A grades that are awarded each year; break the links between chief examiners and School visits; have fewer Sixth Form subjects - not every course needs to have an exam at the end of it to be educational.

And finally, don't let Jonny Griffiths write an article in the TES again.