Saturday, 21 February 2009

Freewheeling in the sunshine

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Minder: lovely oysters

The remake of Minder is obviously rubbish. However, Private Eye this week described the original as rubbish too (although they did also say it was 'likeable' and 'warm-hearted' in mitigation).

As luck would have it the first Minder is being repeated on ITV4 (yes, count 'em). A lot of old programmes once you see them again turn out to be not as nearly as good as remembered. Minder is just as good as I remember it and certainly a long way from 'rubbish'.

I assumed the acting would have lasted, what with George Cole, Dennis Waterman and a collection of superb British character actors in supporting roles (June Whitfield, Jimmy Nail, Roy Winstone, Glynn Edwards as good old Dave of the Winchester and many more). What surprised me was the quality of the scripts. Truly witty, great dialogue (with some choice bits of rhyming slang thrown in) and more often than not nicely plotted (if with admittedly predictable story arcs).

It got me wondering who had written it. Why weren't they as celebrated as Clement and La Frenais, Galton and Simpson,  Carla Lane, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, etc.?

I assumed a team of writers was involved as there's a lot of dialogue, many characters and the wit comes thick and fast. Well, the largest number of episodes, including some of the best ones, were written by Tony Hoare who had also written for the Sweeney. 

I think he probably didn't get as much credit as he deserved as Leon Griffiths created the show and wrote the first series (before having to bow out after suffering a stroke). Other writers also wrote a good number of episodes. However, I gather the Hoare episodes are among the best and most characteristic (I hope to confirm this via ITV4).

Sadly Tony Hoare died last October. Having read his obituary it turns out he was writing about a very familiar milieu: he was a convicted bankrobber and had spent most of the 1960s in and out of prison. How about that for authenticity?

BTW great geezer photo accompanying the obit.

The good littl'uns

There's been a bit of commentary on the upcoming Lions tour to South Africa along the lines of: 'shame England aren't doing well, as the Lions usually rely on the big English forwards'. I think even Jonathan Davies said something along these lines.

Well, what about the two most successful Lions teams of all time, to NZ in 1971 and SA in 1974? England had pretty poor representation and certainly didn't dominate the forward selections.

In 1971 of the party of 33, 6 were English and 3 Englishmen made it into the test team: Peter Dixon (wing forward), Dai Duckham (wing) and John Pullin (hooker).

In 1974 of the party of 32 there more English than three years previously, 9, but only Roger Uttley (wing forward) and Fran Cotton (prop) could command a Test place.

In both these tours it was the relatively small, mobile and technically accomplished Celtic props (OK, along with Fran Cotton in '74) who really provided the platform for victory: Mighty Mouse MacLachlan and Sean Lynch.

Moreover, if you take the most successful (and entertaining) tour of the last 30 years, to SA in 1997, when England had already begun their era of dominance, it was again the Celts who dominated the pack.

The 1997 Test team had Tom Smith and Paul Wallace at prop, Keith Wood (the raging potato) at hooker, and Jeremy Davidson and some bloke called Martin Johnson at lock. This lot were pretty lightweight compared to the Boks but very mobile and skilful. And it's SA again this year.

Interestingly I don't think anyone would have predicted the '97 Test line-up at the beginning of the tour - the players emerged as the tour proceeded. (Which makes Woodward's pre-tour selection of the Test team in 2005 look even more foolish).

So do not fret - a shortage of quality Englishmen is far from unprecedented and is usually a very positive indicator. Let's hope the littl'uns come good again this time. (Mind you, Gethin Jenkins is over 19st).

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Great quote

Great quote from Gramsci in Nick Cohen's piece in last Sunday's Observer. Cohen was referring to the country under Brown: "The old is dead and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, many morbid symptoms appear". Quite poetically true.

The other quote I've come across from Gramsci is: 'Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will'. Which doesn't seem a bad approach to recommend to the next Tory Chancellor who will have such an unpleasant task putting things back together again.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

A bit of fun but not going anywhere

Simon Schama often begins his books by taking something - usually something intrinsically eye-catching and intriguing - and making it emblematic of his subject. In the case of 'Citizens', about the French Revolution, it was a life-size plaster elephant. In 'The Embarrassment of Riches', about the Dutch Golden Age, it was a beached whale.

He will take these rather unlikely things and metaphorically hold them up to the light, turning them around in order to reveal their significance, both contemporaneously and from our perspective. His imaginative riffs will then elaborate on this significance to tell us something profound about the people of the time.

Well, I was driving past the London Eye this evening and I wondered whether the Schama of the future might use it as an emblem of our 'age of irresponsibility'? There it is, almost overshadowing Westminster and Whitehall, the Mother of Parliaments and the administrative centre of what was the largest empire the world had seen. Right in the solemn heart of the country's government.

And what is it? Despite its impressive engineering and undeniably elegant design it is essentially a fairground ride. Does something as trivial and indulgent belong in this spot?

I think it may well be just right. It's perfectly emblematic of where we have been in recent years. Entertainment and self-indulgence have overridden the political and serious in our culture. Our obsession with celebrity, with entertainment and our fear of being challenged or educated makes it the right emblem for the 'noughties. We've really been going nowhere - just round and round with nothing to show for it except a bit of inconsequential fun.

And it was a bit of commercially paid-for inconsequential fun, that I understand is now struggling to get a sponsor.

Friday, 13 February 2009

For Fuck's Sake

What a ridiculous hoo-ha the media are making about Boris Johnson's 'tirade' (the cliche of the moment for this story) to Keith Vaz. Apart from it being utterly justified - as would any tirade directed at the oleaginous, sycophantic little creep Vaz - surely, a sprinkling of swear words is fairly run-of-the-mill when things get heated in most bits of serious business? Or at least in what is taken for a private conversation. By the way, I gather newsrooms are some of the most prolific cursing arenas - but then hypocrisy is a stock in trade here.

Anyway, I think the majority of people really enjoy a good swear, either as participants or spectators. Testament to this is the popularity, not to say classic status, of certain TV programmes and films featuring particularly creative swearing.

My own favourites put Bozza's swearing to shame. His features only one four letter word, which isn't even clustered together to create an aesthetically pleasing and cathartic climax of alliterative repetition (sorry got a bit carried away with the lit crit there).

Off the top of my head here is what I think is the best film and best TV programme, swearing-wise:

Oscar for Best Swearing: Glengarry Glen Ross

Consistently interesting swearing throughout the film with some wonderfully satisfying peaks of intensely creative cussing. Started life as a play by top playwright David Mamet, proving that swearing can be big and clever. Here is some of the best dialogue.

Emmy for Best Swearing: The Thick of It

I believe the writers employed a swearing consultant, Ian Martin of a website called Martian FM. A great investment. The swearing ranges from the unexpected and baroque ("Don't start with the moral objections, you fucking Blue Peter badge wearing ponce! Go and make a contribution to the fucking Amnesty International! Go and buy a goat a whole village can fuck, but you are doing this for me!") to the elegantly simple "Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off". Swearing has never appeared so clever when delivered by Peter Capaldi playing spin doctor Malcolm Tucker.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Business meetings: New School vs Old School

I happen to be having lots of business meetings at the moment, where effectively I'm pitching to the other side. It's striking how these meetings fall into two categories.

The first sort of meeting has a friendly, collaborative atmosphere where the theme is 'what can we fellow professionals achieve together?' The second feels more like an interview, even to an adversarial extent, where the question hanging in the air is 'what do you think you can do for me? (And I'll be the judge of whether you actually can)'.

The first sort of meeting is one where no-one wears a tie; the second is tied, suited and booted (you can almost always tell what to wear by looking at the company's website - it's amazing how clearly they can shout 'we are a tie-wearing company!').

You tend to liaise directly with the principals as to the 'whens' and 'wheres' in the first sort of meeting. Those you're meeting in the second sort invariably have PAs. You get the impression that email is something that's akin to the post room - i.e. they expect to have whatever's arrived there fetched up for them.

Finally, the first sort of meeting is with people under the age of 45; the second is with people in their 50s. And I'm afraid I think this is the determining factor.

I'm not saying everyone over 50 is like this - I know from my own wider experience they aren't - just that in my recent experience an awful lot are.

But why the watershed, why the generational shift from 'Old School' to 'New School'? My guess is that it stems from age of exposure to the new, web-driven economy.

It was in the late 1990s that people started adopting the tieless, casual, collaborative culture that first emerged in Silicon Valley and, by the time of the crash, had spread even to law firms and investment banks. Someone of 45 would have been 35 around about then.

So it may be that people are pretty much open to adopting new cultural attitudes and behaviours to business until their mid- to late-30s but only rarely beyond. This is supported by one of the axioms of the advertising industry. Advertisers tend to target the 18-34 age group as their buying habits are still relatively fluid, tending to crystallise around certain brands from 35 onwards.

As I'm 42 this is pretty scary if true. What am I currently missing out on which will make me look like a leftover from a different era in 10 years time? On the other hand, this sort of cultural shift probably only happens once every generation or two. So must keep my eyes peeled for when it happens next.

But then why should I implicitly assume that New is better than Old, that New necessarily represents progress? Which sort of meeting is really the most effective? Old School is more obviously hard-nosed. But then although New School is more relaxed, I'm sure there's a lot of hard-nosed appraising going on beneath the surface. I guess the traditionalists would argue that Old School is just a more honest, frank and, I suppose, business-like approach?

In any event, I prefer the cuddlier New School even if it may be a bit disingenuous. And I think my fundamental reason for this is that it's simply a more pleasant experience. Happily, I believe this in itself is an aid to effectiveness. But then this may just be one of those woolly, idealistic, late-1990s inspired attitudes typical of my generation of business people.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Oh dear

This Carol Thatcher incident gets you thinking about what attitudes really lie beneath the surface.

It brought to mind an occasion when I worked behind the bar of a country pub. It was a clear, warm day in early summer and two elderly couples were in, enjoying a ploughman's lunch. The sunlight was streaming through the leaded windows and I looked at them thinking what a rather idyllic way to spend your retirement - long country pub lunches with old friends.

Anyway I wasn't really listening to what they were saying until the following drifted over to me: 'Did you hear that dreadful little man Tutu on the radio this morning?' 'What an awful, jumped up fellow!' 'Absolutely!' 'We would have had him hanged in our day' 'And quite right too'.

'The End' by Michael Lewis: Sub-Prime Explained

If you click on the title above you'll find an article by Michael Lewis, the author of 'Liar's Poker' (a cracking read about Wall Street's bull market of the 1980s). This is the best article I've read about the sub-prime 'bezzle', as JK Galbraith would have described it.

The useful thing about it is that it explains quite technical issues through anecdote and lively first-person explanation. This is a trademark feature of Lewis, who can turn what appear to be quite dry subjects into, for want of a better description, human interest stories.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Tony Blair: the heir to David Frost

Frost/Nixon is a terrific film with great performances, especially Frank Langella's as Nixon. There's one thing in it which I think may be a little in-joke by the writers, a bit of intertextuality for those literary theorists out there. 

At the end of the film, Nixon and Frost are saying their goodbyes on the terrace of Nixon's beachfront California home. Nixon says something along the lines of Frost being lucky that he enjoys the company of people, parties, glad-handing, unlike Nixon. Perhaps, says Nixon, Frost should have been the politician rather than him. Michael Sheen as Frost gives a little quizzical look and smiles, just enough time for us to remember his performance as Blair in that film about the Queen and the death of Diana.

The suggestion is that Blair has more in common with a chat show host such as Frosty than a traditional politician. Such as the constant concern to keep in the public eye (cf Blair's 'eye-catching initiatives') and incessant courting of the rich, powerful and famous (cf Blair's holidays, Chequers dinners, Cool Britannia parties, etc, etc). The more you think about it, the more they seem fairly interchangeable. Sofa government?

On the other hand, I've probably just read too much into it.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Gatland - potentially terrifying

Just watched Warren Gatland on Scrum V.

I suspect one of his qualities as a coach is that he can quite easily terrify players. Sometimes, particularly when the topic is the opposition or competition generally, he appears to be slowly munching on a wasp. You can see the suppressed aggression there which I'm sure he lets explode when a little encouragement is needed.

He never got an All Black full cap over a period of literally years as an understudy to the indestructible Sean Fitzpatrick and this must have something to do with it - all that frustration to work off. But what makes him very special is that he can also be a very sensitive and understanding man-manager. His exemplary nurturing treatment of Gavin Henson - who I don't think has ever been managed so well - is testament to that.

BTW there's a fantastic compilation on YouTube of highlights of the Welsh team in the 80s. Despite it not being a vintage era overall, I'd forgotten the truly beautiful rugby played by the Triple Crown winning team of 1988. At one point they had four fly-halfs playing in the back line, each of them consummate playmakers, particularly the extravagantly talented Mark Ring. The revelation to me, though, was just how good Richie Collins was - fantastic hands and acceleration. I think he played basketball for Wales and it really shows. Here's the url:

Swindon, home of the great Fluck

Great story about Diana Dors in AN Wilson's Our Times. Her real name was Diana Mary Fluck, which was 'so obviously in danger of mispronunciation that she changed it...After she became famous, she agreed to open a church fete in her native town. The vicar of Swindon in desperation to avoid just such a mispronunciation, was guided by a malign misfortune to avoid the wrong obscenity. "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the very lovely Miss Diana Clunt"'.

Melinda Messenger and Billie Piper are also from Swindon, making it disproportionately productive of blonde pin-ups. So is Mark Lamarr - perhaps his 'fifties throwback' image is an unconscious homage to La Dors?

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Jones Dairy Cafe

We went to Columbia Road today to buy some plants and flowers. Had coffee, bagels and Welsh cakes at Jones Dairy Cafe. I love this place - it's a relic of a lovely bit of ethnic mixing.

The London Welsh dairies diversified from milk deliveries to found little general stores, and so effectively invented today's corner shop. This one has evolved into a cafe and it's only natural that it should sell bagels, adding in some of the East End's Jewish heritage.

This East End Jewish-Welsh mix always seems an unlikely one to me - despite the fact that I happen to be Welsh with a bit of East End Jewish thrown in. It works very well at Jones Dairy Cafe. (As does the cast iron stove, about 5' tall and articulated so it looks like some rusty-red ancient ziggurat).