Sunday, 5 December 2010

Nothing is hidden

Wittgenstein couldn't have known about the internet in general and wikileaks in particular when he said this.  But you guess he wouldn't have been surprised by Assange's persecuted little face in the papers this week,  the man accused of letting the truth out on its way to the canal to be drowned.  When Wikipedia, Wikileaks mummy, started out, it was thought pointless and stupid, insofar as it wasn't compiled by experts with corduroy trousers and posturepedic tenure.  What were the chances, people said,  of people honestly and without benefit to themselves, taking time out to upload elements of their expertise to an amorphous wuffle of global knowledge?  It would be full of lies and sinister rubbish.  Of course, this was written by journalists and academics, exactly the sort of people who couldn't imagine a page of content without an accompanying invoice.  Turns out it's the people who fib who need paying for it.  Truth comes out the way water will find its way out of a handbag.  Wittgenstein was pursuing a more general, philosophical notion of truth, detecting that through the tracery of institutions, dogmas and human mediation, truth still seeped round the hinges and seams to be collected by those who who, like him, sat back and pondered life's immensities. Well, no need, Ludwig.  Today we have truth seeping through the brickwork, bubbling up through the floorboards, lifting the carpet.  Where once you looked at your tea-leaves for the truth, now 'America thinks you're an idiot' stares at you, both shocking and obvious, from every media.  China's worried, U.S. call it turrismm, Turkey's angry and Saudi Arabia's embarrassed.  Somehow, though, the more truth comes out the more the rest of us think as Wittgenstein did, that if we didn't know the particulars, we sort of knew the general principle.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

'Thanks for all your hard work in Sangin, Josh'

Awarding the freedom of Taunton Deane to 40 Commando wasn't a big deal when it occurred a few years ago. It was reported in the local paper, alongside  'Garden Centre gets green light.'  As part of the deal, 40 Commando had the right to march through town, a right they exercised on the 17th of November, on their return from a 6 month tour.
40 Commando tie-pin.  Best I could do.

Freezing rain fell throughout, uniforms sagged with the weight of absorbed water, yet 30,000 people lined the route for all those hours.  The population of Taunton is only 80,000, many had to work, were too old or unable for other reasons to wait in the rain.  So it was a massive, defiant and stoic turnout.  I was at work myself and was only distracted by the parade by a short but intense call after it had finished, from my wife asking for help in locating a blow-dryer to take to the primary school as many of the children were blue with cold. 

There was a solemn inspection of the troops by dignitaries, Lady Gass, Liam Fox, and our self-important MP, Jeremy Browne. Poignantly, though, during this most pompous of moments they were reminded of the true significance of the event when a female voice shouted 'Love you, Pete.'  And another, 'I love you, Josh.'

The phrase 'everyone in the town has been touched in some way...' is one of those semantic building blocks that one day computers will use to assemble the daily news from.  It's a cliche.  But the truth behind it is humbling.  A friend giving Reiki to Lorna, the wife of one of the marines, who had been left behind to rear a cranky 8 year old and a new-born,  suddenly became aware of a huge emotionality in the room.   She asked Lorna if she was crying, but she said no.   But of course she was,  trying to hide the weight she was carrying.

I have also seen Lorna in town, or on school runs.  I have noticed that she walks around like a zombie for 6 months at a time.  Quiet, mousy, getting fatter, more shapeless in the face, more uncertain in social situations, dissolving inside with a deepening solitude, exhaustion and fear for her husband.  He, of course, must face the hardship and hard work in Sangin.  But he has the advantage of knowing when he is safe.  He has comradeship, purpose and of course the thanks of dignitaries on his return.

Liam Fox, like a plumed vice consul, said we all here today to pay tribute to your dedication and professionalism.  You have our deepest gratitude.'   Jeremy Browne, the MP said that 'Most of us cannot imagine the strength of mind' of the marines.  He was sure that they in turn 'appreciated the public's show of respect.' 

But no one shouted out 'Thanks for your professionalism.'  They were marching because they had the right to do so, into the arms of a town almost everyone of whose population really had experienced fear, sacrifice and even loss.  The Taunton Deane mayor was closer, when he said 'there was a sense of togetherness and support that goes beyond normal relationships even expected in garrison towns'.  Lorna and her friends, the blue lipped school-friends of her 8 year old, weren't risking hypothermia out of respect or gratitude, it was an act of claiming back of loved ones from the clutches of the state and of welcome.  Lorna wasn't thanked, and her sacrifices weren't imagined.  She was there to mutely take back her husband.

Some events just aren't news-shaped.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

We really need to talk about Quentin Letts

I enjoyed a recent 'takedown' by Guardian journalist Adrian Short of Quentin Letts.

Punchable?  Moi?
Letts is a puffy-faced middle brow wag you sometimes see doing the newspaper review on rolling news stations. It's worth reading but take out the Mail Guardian rivalry and there's not much substantial in his attack.  Short's dislike for Letts and The Daily Mail are just as sniffy in essence as that of his subject for left-leaning, ordinary-shaped women in public sector jobs. 

But while Letts is on the ground being kicked I would like to take the opportunity to stamp on his specs.  I'd like to question the pathetic humourless humour that he and other sketch writers generate.   The smugness of tone is one thing.  The Sarah Kennedyness of what goes on in his brain,  all 'our coloured brethren' and  'his nibs',  is another.

The smug-yet-wise sketch writer tone is actually an anachronism. The deployment of an arch comment after a quote from a politician, or a set of quotation marks used to suggest raised eyebrows is not necessary today.  They belong to an age of deference.  These days you can rip into the substance and style of any politician directly.   You're not going to get beheaded.  You're limited only by your slimy aspirations to not miss out on an invite to drinks.   But if you're not even 'speaking truth unto power',  just slagging someone off for the sake of it, this way of writing is pointless.

But apart from the misanthropy, smugness and sniveling solipsism, the thing that gets me is sloppiness.  It's not the victimization of perfectly normal people, it's the lack of time he takes to do it, the slovenly approach to his chosen profession.    Here's a selection of the column dissected by Adrian Short.  Where he critiqued the smug content, I just want to pick out the jokes. 

"A Whitehall official has been Tweeting about her drunkenness, boasting about how pointless she thinks some of her work is and how much she dislikes the Government’s deficit reduction."


"When I rang her department yesterday to tell them, there was a cold pause before someone promised
to ‘get back’ to me. He never did."


"Civil servants used to try to be impartial and discreet. Not so Sarah Baskerville, ‘Team Leader in Corporate Finance Systems and Reporting Solutions’ (what a title!) at the Department of Transport.
Ms Baskerville, aka ‘Baskers’, is an incorrigible contributor to the internet. She belongs to numerous networking sites."


"In the middle of a management course — paid for by us taxpayers to help her do her job better — she posted a Tweet promoting a Labour MP’s attack on Downing Street ‘spin’. She later described the person who was taking the course as ‘mental’.Charming."


Just on that last joke. While we should be grateful that he actually moves beyond snide punctuation to deliver his humorist punchlines,  saying 'Charming' after someone's opinion is not very funny.  Not really.  Not for a humorist.  Imagine saying 'Excuse me' to James Thurber and being asked  'Why what have you done?'  Even if he had said it, he wouldn't write it up.  Not as a humorous anecdote.  Not to millions of people. 

Who cares? Letts admits to being a hack.  And he has an excuse. He writes four columns a day, political sketches and theatre reviews.  He writes so much because he wants the money, has a family, needs to keep the wolf from the door. All fine, if he wasn't moaning through his sloppy, regurgitated style, the decline in standards.

Quentin, see, believes in elites. "If people have no sense of what is best, how can they improve themselves?" he writes, in the introduction to one of his quickly expectorated works of non-fiction.    His latest book is actually called Bog Standard Britain. How Mediocrity ruined this great nation.
He says 'I'm shouting out for elitism and public duty' and 'Traditional ideas of honour have been dumped'.

If he wrote brilliantly on any subject, he'd have my vote.  I read the Spectator for many years, even though I frequently found its politics nauseating, simply because many of the contributors really could write.  The doctor (Theodore Dalrymple?)who used a column to slag off his poor, feckless patients?  Despicable, but nicely done.  (I stopped reading The Spectator when Boris Johnson took over as editor and it became overtly braying.)

Quentin Letts, unlike Theodore Dalrymple, let alone James Thurber,  often restricts his satire to mocking someone's appearance to save time researching matters. Like the left-leaning, ordinary-shaped woman that he mocked for wearing a silly hat, not realizing she was suffering from cancer and her hair had fallen out.  (She died a few days later.) Surely he would agree that these are not great British standards to uphold.

Lazy, pointless, sloppy, ingratiating, nasty.  It seems Letts is everything  he himself hates.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Dude Huge and the gift of violence

Two things to weigh up if you're considering getting your kids Call of Duty Black Ops for Christmas.

Supemax prisons.  Banned in Britain for their cruelty, they are a type of high security jail designed to control the most inhumanly violent prisoners in US and Australia. They have as their most extreme sanction solitary confinement with guards only permitted to communicate via gesture.  Prisoners who are released from such jails frequently find conversation painfully difficult and find it difficult to cope with large crowds.

The design director of Epic Games, who make Gears of War is a very engaging man called Cliff Bleszinski. He has  been referred to as Dude Huge, perhaps by friends.   He said in an interview last week that visceral violence is important to the satisfaction levels of game play, in particular, the gory afters of an assault.   Teenagers need heads to explode like watermelons after they have thwacked them because they crave a response.  It's evidence that contact has been made.  He made similar reference to the powerful fascination of guns. Making contact so forcibly is rewarded by a death, a jolt,  a spent  cartridge or perhaps the societal acknowledgement of a punishment. 

Withdrawal of communication is violence, violence is a form of communication.  

So I probably will be getting a violent xbox game for my son, if only because it will give us something to talk about. 

Friday, 15 October 2010

Remarks aren't literature

Gertrude Stein once said ‘remarks aren’t literature’.  But then she lived in a world before twitter.  There is some kind of art to the perfect tweet, from ‘Lif is too short’ (Peter Serafinawicz) to This is the very tits by Graham Linnehan in a set up to a link, I’m sort of getting into the brevity/wit/soul thing.  A powerful production controller who used to work at Saatchi and Saatchi was once set up by an creative team into believing that a TV company wanted to make a documentary about him called 30 second man.  He fell for it because he believed that someone could take anything so short seriously.  But working in advertising, I am made all too aware that some people do sometimes achieve amazingly powerful feats of chimerically short communication, because they win awards.  The economist posters were for a decade or so perennial winners with such lines as Blunt, yet sharp. Then there are the most expensive three words in a screenplay, ‘The fleets meet.’  But jokes, observations and selling copy aren’t yet literature, Stein would say.  A haiku maybe gets there, with 17 syllables.  Trouble is most of them are shit.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

From Mandocracy to Mendocracy

'Bernard Ingham?  I shit Bernard facking Ingham.'
Mendocracy. Not my term but one I read on a left-wing political blog.  It is suggesting that our dear government is based on lies.  I took it as the reappearance of Spartist vernacular from the 'Fatcher' years.   But over the months I noticed instances of a peculiar new kind of mendacity in news stories. The straight lie, as opposed to spin.  This is interesting because in public life, lies and truth are supposed to be relative.

Forget about truth for the moment, let's not get religious.  Consider the kaleidoscope of refracted deviosity that 'lies' throws up when put under the light of scrutiny. Remember economical with the truth, spin, dark arts and weasel words?  Course you do.   That was the Peter Mandleson's contribution to the taxonomy of the politically expedient inaccuracy, an unscrolling list of dodgy terminology as suspicious as an expanding wallet full of credit cards.

I first heard the 'spin doctor' term in the UK when it was applied to Bernard Ingham, 'Fatcher's' press secretary. (Like fridges, the US seem to have had  it decades earlier.)   Ingham's technique was a simple one.  He would go on the Today programme saying 'Well, no,  the Poll tax is actually a very good thing and here's why...'   Ingham lied in a cuddly way.  He'd find an excuse to thump working class people behind your ear and produce it with a twinkle.  You'd leave the room like a molested public schoolboy, uncertain as whether something good or bad had just happened.

From 1997, spin became a richer concept, one that incorporated such variables as timing, i.e.  slipping out news of a cow dying of foot and mouth in Argyleshire while the world was distracted by planes hitting the World Trade Centre. Then the, I think, the brilliant distinction of 'I misspoke' arrived, a joyously 'get-out-of-jail free'  invention to cover the publicly-proven wrongism. The best recent example was Cameron's bland assertion that Iran has nuclear weapons shortly after becoming PM.  Instead of the world rounding on the callow toff with an almighty snort of derision it was blaffed away with a Maggie Smith facial expression that implied a slight yet understandable inexactitude of word order cause by a earwig or something on the microphone stand.

Yet that's not a lie, that's ignorance.  Ignorance isn't lying, even when it helps your argument to deny the facts.  For example, Michael Gove chiding Andy Burnham for saying 'a third less' rather than 'a third fewer'  to roars of supremacy from his own coterie in parliament.  Judging by his crowing manner he was probably ignorant of, rather than ignoring, the fact that 'less' is correct when talking of fractions, which Burnham clearly knew from his bellowed classist insults across the Commons chamber.

But what about Eric Pickles stating that the Audit commission wasted public money by spending a day at the races.  The impression was that the body responsible for careful use of taxpayers money was gambling it away wearing top hats.  The solid unmovable fact that the facilities were used on non race days had only two possible interpretations.  Either the Audit Commission top brass were pretending to ride horses round the track while others played betters and punters, or they were innocently using the conference facilities in the same way as Prontaprint,  CarpetMaster and Dolly's 50th birthday party organisers, as a way to cheaply accommodate a large number of people.

How Eric Pickles jumped to the wrong conclusion is unimaginable, unless he was looking to gain acceptance for his plan to close the Audit Commission.  I prefer the more obvious explanation.  His face looks like a pie so I'm going to go ahead and assume his brain is actually cooked entrails.

But lie?  Never.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Who are the police batting for?

'Where's yer canary, mining scum?'
As a kid watching the miner's strike unfold, I wasn't especially informed about the issues.  Coal mining looked a pretty mucky job and you're probably better off out of it, working in a velcro factory or something, or being unemployed and watching sport. But I do remember the shudder on seeing the friendly British bobby with his comedy hat out of Trumpton, and genial way of riding on the footplate of your car singing,  fighting burglars merely by tooting a whistle and having rosy cheeks like an embarrassed puffin, suddenly turn into one of many mutton-faced shock troops stomping down working class northerners like the rotters in Battleship Potemkin.  The flashback was caused by a small detail in the recently resurfaced News of the World bugging affair.  This is from page 5 of 8 in the recent New York Times article on the subject online.

"In addition to the royal household, Scotland Yard alerted five other victims whose names would appear in the indictment of Mulcaire. Of the remaining hundreds who potentially had their phones broken into, the police said they notified only select individuals with national-security concerns: members of the government, the police and the military."

Hang on.  The police?  Did the News of the World have dirt on the cops?  Could that account for Scotland Yard's reluctance to investigate such a major offence as a foreign-owned company bugging government and military sources?

As in the miners strike the police have transmogrified into an alien beast working for bad people. They've become the police in South Africa during apartheid, or in New Orleans during a hurricane. The bluebottles, bobbies and old time coppers of my Norman Wisdom tainted youth have turned.  

Imagine whatever brand of plod forms your own memory of the typical policeman.  Imagine him patting his head with a hanky as he looks down the list in the Cheam home of the News International private investigator.    

'Blimey Sarge, T'aint only dolly birds what they got on this 'ere list, they's got rozzers an' all.  Top Brass and no mistake.'  'Give me that list you flatfoot' reply the clipped tones of the Sergeant.   'I think Chief SuperIntendent will be interested in this.'  'Cor Stone me', replies the sweating Constable, scratching on his mildewed neck creases,   'Hope they ain't rumbled his dalliance with Trixie Flanders, the cheeky prostitute.'   

Ripple dissolve.  


Chief Superintendent bows low and when told to get up glistens with slime as he explains that he will have to investigate some - well, a few, I mean very very few - alright, just 5 of the cases  of the hundreds of hacked MPs, military, police, sports and showbiz people.  Otherwise some might suggest the Met is in the pay of foreign news organisations.  

'Perish the thought' says Andy Coulson, a smile spreading across his face like a tumour.    

Meanwhile a policewoman dances onto a small stage nearby dressed only in feather boa and Coulson puts a pale finger to his lips.  'The entertainment has started'. 

In the blue flashing strobe light the Chief SuperIntendent can't help seeing in his master's chubby features a resemblance to those of Edgar Hoover.  Now there was a dirty digger. 

Monday, 26 July 2010

Thank You, Wikipedia

That spoof video about Newport contains the lyric, "Josie Darby's from Newport/Yes, it's strange we didn't know either/ Thankyou Wikipedia", owning up about where we all get our instant erudition from these days.  In the midst of writing we can within seconds feign feats of recall that were once only available to dons and raconteurs on their second drink.

By the way, I don't mean the Nashville band, The Raconteurs, who are known in Australia as The Saboteurs due to the coincidence of a Queensland group already using the name Raconteurs. (Thank You, Wikipedia.)

By eliminating the need for a shelf of books and a hearty library habit, perhaps at some college, and a nice study and a support system that allows you to  squander time rubbing the bridge of your nose as you look up the slim vol of poetry to get that quote right, Wikipedia has changed, probably, some very fundemental things about what a writer looks and even smells like.

Read an essay from before the time of the internet and you sense a very different beast at work, gnawing at his typewriter trying to make his word count.  This would conventionally be a genuinely erudite soul,  with a wholly different information processing system, the most important features of which are that it is large, external and complex.  So it is not the sort of support structure available to most people. It is the equivalent of the difference between shelled animals and their unshelled equivalents.  These prelasparian writers had to arrange their lives, loves, finances, feeding habits and those of their partners, children, priests, barmen, pets and so on, around the simple fact of their need for an exoskeleton that provided the important personal resource of education and information storage.

To read the work of the pre-internet writer, the 'old type fouled up guy' as Larkin described himself, (thank you, Wikipedia) is to summon an image of the dens those works are conceived in, the napless carpets, the radio with selotaped aerial,  the gin and glasses, discarded pullovers, objects and photo's of ugly friends and of course, the ceiling-high shelves laden with dust and books.

Today, we are free of the need for that placenta-like resource but are, once we have cut the cord, perhaps more naked as a result.  If someone were to question me about The Raconteurs or Philip Larkin at a function, especially a function at which not being exposed as a fraud is in some way important, I would be embarrassed by my one-dimensional knowledge. So, big question, is this a good thing or not?

One's normal response when deciding whether to back or moan about progress is to err on the side of survival.  Yes I am modern and relevant and love the internet to bits.  But in this case I guess it has to be a good thing.  Several generations of writers have been able to moan about Tennyson not having to clear his own plate away, let alone cook, wash up and clean under the rim of whatever kind of toilet bowl 19th Century poets had (Wikipedia is inconclusive).

You don't have to be a writer to envy Seigfried Sassoon's life of leisure. Sassoon did nothing unless he happened to fancy it that morning.  He normally opted for riding or writing, until war gave him something to ride around in and write about.  But modern writers will feel the pain of green-eyedness a little more acutely than some as they attempt to forget their job in Pizza Express for the purposes of finding their novelist's voice.

I went to my old friend Mark Radcliffe's book launch on Saturday.  (Gabriel's Angel - buy it why don't you?)  The event was combined with his 50th birthday party, throwing into sharp relief the fact that I knew him before his voice broke.  I know what he had to go through to get to his first novel.  I remember the prefab house he lived in, the mice droppings in the frying pan in his/our first London flat, the nursing job, the other stuff (we didn't always stay in touch).  He had as much chance of gathering about him the inkstands and photographs of tousle-haired dons on a Cumbrian walking holiday that provide a writer's support system as a pig has of flying when he's already busy with other, more pressing matters.

If it is a little easier today for people to take off before they run out of runway, it has to be good news for the variety and quality of writing available.

Monday, 5 July 2010

What's the point of being nasty to bad writers?

In Terry Eagleton's  decimation of 'Heartbreak'by Craig Raines
a writer, possibly hapless, is set upon without mercy for some very self-regarding prose indeed.  Here are a few examples of the literary coshing. 

'There is, in short, plenty of stuff to keep Pseuds’ Corner busy for a fair few months: ‘Francesca’s fanny was a glorious irrepressible Afro pompon (“to go with my Botswana bottom”)’ might do for a start', 

There is much rustling of the author’s Things I Saw Today that Look A Bit Like Other Things notebook.

''There are pregnant pronouncements such as ‘the myth of our attractiveness survives its destruction’; in the margin the reader is silently invited to inscribe a large approving tick'

'Another character speaks of ‘some … dump in fucking wind-tormented Ireland. I remember going for a walk in one of those places. Got an amazing headache in seconds from the wind parting my fucking hair in a hundred different places. Every which way. I thought I had a brain tumour. Seriously.’ Nobody actually says ‘wind-tormented’, so the poeticism has to be deflated by that ‘fucking’. The notion of the wind parting one’s hair in a hundred different places is another shamefaced piece of poetry, which must be countered by the sham colloquialism of ‘every which way’. 

I admit, that last section makes one vomit mentally, but what is the attack trying to achieve?  It is published in the LRB so sales won't be hurt, only reputation.  So is it to do down the author's prospects?  Or stop him trying.   The book sounds unreadable, yet in some of the examples given you can sense the writer trying to describe something for the first time, without fear of 'the chill wind from Cambridge'.   What would Walt Whitman have written if he'd lived amongst English LIT CRIT creeps waiting to duff him up then roll off together sniggering from the common room twirling their conkers.  No wonder English writers all try to adopt the same bovver boy manner, Amis and Barnes and Faulks and Banks all set their faces into a turdy glare of negativity to announce that theirs is approved literature.
If you think the job of criticism is to show off  how good you are at criticizing things, you're playing to the same imaginary gallery as the Craig Raine.  Art Criticism is at its most beautiful describing the technical detail of the spectacular, not 'My dog could've done that.' 

 Who put you in charge anyway?

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Stop Praising David Laws.

Please.  Why is everybody praising this person as a paragon.
This is conceivably one of the most deceitful and most abusive scandals ever.
He had a secret lover, who he paid with taxpayers' money. 
He could have kept his privacy but chose to give him your money as well.  As a way to cover it up.
He also gave his lover exorbitant maintenance and council tax payments according to the Telegraph.
Which records show that he reduced when rules were introduced saying that recipts were needed.
This  is proof that his intent was to make petty financial gain.
Yet he persisted.
The expenses scandal must have told him that he was breaking the rules.
His excuse is that he wanted to help his lover buy a flat. - That's not something that taxpayers need to pay a millionaire for to get themselves represented.
Yet he is universally praised.  
He is praised by the leaders of a government who are going to change our broken politics.
There has been no witch hunt.  
No one's been calling for his head.  
He went because the most disgusting deceit has been tried on, and found out. 
Oh, and how does 'we weren't even proper partners' excuse him? 

Monday, 17 May 2010

The blind man's labrador's witness

If the electorate were a Labrador, (a big if, if ever there was one) then it is a guide dog, a gentle and patient pilot to a uncertain political class, feeling its way into dark territory strewn with obstacles and quickly moving forces. The labrador represents the dumb yet not stupid electorate, that can only shove mutely and bark once every five years. The blind person however is confident of its superiority to the labrador and wants to change the result of the election in its favour. The electorate decided that there should not be an overall majority for any party, but a hung parliament, one that should regularly be called to account and have to trim its behaviour to the requirements of its neighbours.  Good doggy.But what the blind person wanted was a proper majority, a stable mandate that would mean it could ignore the concerns of others, and the consequences of the doggy's clear-sighted decision. So it changes the decision, by allocating a higher percentage of votes needed to dissolve the parliament resulting in exactly the opposite of what the doggy ordered. An untouchable majority. The trouble is that the doggy needs a shit now and then (I love metaphors. I can run and run with them.) When it does the blind man has to clear up the mess with a little poo sack, or risk standing in it. The dog will do this because it's a dog, and it poos in public. Whereas a blind man is blind, and has trouble locating and dealing with the poo. To find it he will have to bend over and sniff around, at which point he'll be mistaken for a dog with hilarious consequences, if the the guide dog happens to be on heat. And the blind man is wearing no trousers. Meanwhile, we can all watch in horror and amusement as the public repays the blind man in the wide-eyed gaze of the media. No really. Metaphors come true all the time

Thursday, 8 April 2010

21st Century Politics. I'm spoofing my own ads.

We're now into the last few weeks of the campaign and I find myself writing ads for both sides. Helping out a Labour friend and candidate in a high profile seat with dispassionate advice and suggestions, while in my professional capacity, like a barrister defending a mad man, I slave over the Tories. The fact that there is so much spoof activity online is getting me into a psychological vortex. As much of my work finally sees the light of day in badly realised versions of their former selves, I find myself sitting in bed last Saturday, corrupting one of my own ads for the other side, then turning to address a hasty call from the office to churn out a crude mockery of another ad that ends up in the next day's Mail on Sunday. And with the most visible ads sometimes being the spoofs, it's now pointless distinguishing between the two. It's spoof-swirl. Luckily I have constructed a chinese wall that neatly bifurcates the professional and personal sides of my ad writing cerebellum so I'm alright for now. Nor do I spill secrets to the other side. Why not? well think about it logically. Take two possible motivations. Not to lose my job and not to act immorally. Both ends of the spectrum favour not being a double agent, therefore all points in between must do so too.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Sorry, Ken Livingstone

I worked on the great newtered Mayor's campaign some years ago - an enjoyable and successful experience. I met him at one of the agency party's that he spoke at in order to raise our collective morale. In those days we didn't need any morale raising - we were awash with money. Throughout his visit Ken kept his contempt for the abject trivialism of advertising hidden behind his hooded eyelids, though when I had a few moments of one-to-one time I fancied he might throw up into his vol-au-vents, so callow were my youthful views. The terrible truth is that I am a huge admirer of his brave, imaginative, open yet relaxed approach to politics, conviction without the hair shirt. His success seems weirdly to be connected to his famous cache of pet lizards in that whether its an incautious epithet or controversial invitation to the IRA he displayed an extraordinary sang-froid. However. He isn't successful anymore. So when I bumped into him, well, saw him at my local Cafe Nero I felt obliged to once again interpose myself between him and his day to remind him of my, let's face it, election winning headlines. (OK. probably electorally irrelevant headlines.) He shook my hand and made a good fist of remembering me. It was a mistake to tell him that I was now forced to work for the other side, but the irony was too hard to resist blurting. So I did, and he shook my hand again with a finality that indicated my audience was over. I suppose ad people will never understand that some people actually have convictions, rather than adopt those of others for money

Saturday, 20 February 2010


As little as 12% of news in your newspaper is generated by the journalists working for that paper.
This is according to a book called Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. The rest comes from wire copy - handed down by the Press Association and reworded, or not, according to where the journalist happens to exist on the deadline/laziness overlap or better still, cut and pasted from Press Releases. So if you design a letterhead with convincing enough authority you can write tomorrow's news by simply sending in results from a survey that you've made up. Hence you can create a headline on tomorrows Channel news reading 'Cat shit in Fray Bentos Chicken Curry Pies'. Or that's according to a report published today. If it goes to via the Press Association then when it's passed on to the news media they will not ask questions. The BBC (for one) as a matter of policy will not ask any other source. From your head to autocue without any intervening shilly-shallying or 'checking'. Luckily, no one would actually do this, no politician or CEO would stoop to influencing their image or spread rumours about their competitors in this way, even though it really does work and you will certainly get away with it. What's that all about? (That sentence is number 2 in an occasional series of ways to end convoluted blogs, the first being 'How Crazy is that?')

Thursday, 18 February 2010


Copywriting has changed over the years. Not fundamentally. Fundamentally it's exactly the same. It's still the art and science of using words for the mystical purpose for which they are most suited. That of inverted telepathy, or putting thoughts into other people's heads. To digress briefly, it is borderline hilarious that there are so many earnest scientific experiments in peer reviewed journals over the last century testing the possibility of tiny feats of telepathy. If someone in a room can predict the card that someone in another room has turned over, or pointed to, by a fraction of a percentage more often than chance alone might allow for statistical significance, it's a cause for excitement. Yet we are blind to the everyday miracle of language, that plants complex thoughts into other people's minds in great, fat, thick torrents all over the world on an increasingly brilliant scale. Or take the current batch of astonishing TV programmes in which people try to the contact people from the past by standing in a room with the lights out. They ask them questions, hear bumps and scream and swear when a mouse coughs on the other side of the room, or a mote of dust wanders guilelessly across the night vision camera lens. These terrified people then hand back to a studio audience to wonder and emote at the possibility that contact might have been made with people from the past. The murderers and their victims, the historical figures who were making known their tiniest thoughts, as imagined by people who coincidentally got paid for hearing them. Others watching at home could send in their own observations from watching webcams - cameras pointing at empty space - unlit empty space, and these too could be interpreted as voices of the dead. Strange how much entertainment is wrought from such darkened voids of nothing, broadcast at prime time, strange how much pleasure and titillation this provides from hour after hour of literally nothing, when interpreted as the faint expressions of those gone to the other side, when you can garner the very thoughts of Charles Dickens by the very ordinary feat of reading them. You can read a John Keats letter describing his stockinged foot in front of the fire. It's simple, everyday telepathy across time. But it's so mundane that it is not worth remarking upon. But that is what writing is, and copywriting is a kind of paid for, industrial version of this. Is , was and always will be. However, the way copywriting is judged has changed in the internationalist world of the internet. To write an apposite and mildly persuasive line is a kindly sport with its own pith and value as its only reward, or occasionally an actual trophy might be won. But nowadays there are new achievements to enjoy. A few days ago a cluster of words I wrote 'trended'. They trended No 1 in UK and No 10 worldwide on Twitter for a period of a few hours according to Times Online.
The words were more derided than applauded as it happened, but who cares. I trended. Interactive real time news and politics where there was once a docile cluster of persuasive words on paper. I feel I have anonymously contacted another dimension. To paraphrase Coriolanus's mother, Trending on Twitter more becomes a copywriter than gilt his trophy. Well, it's paraphrasing Shakespeare really. Although it's good to think about a telepathic link with a fictional character. He also said through Coriolanus himself, 'action is eloquence' so perhaps I shouldn't be writing at all, but twittering. Twittering is after all where word and action meet. In the bird-territory - mating -hunger world from which the word is derived, tweet is a functional noise. Words allow us to communicate with people from the past, even with fictional people from the past. But when those words are trending, they are being used to mark territory or a sexual display perhaps, in some pathetically abstract way. The words are being recycled as a locus for human behaviour. How crazy is that. (I think I should start a list of quick and easy ways to extract oneself from a long and convoluted blog.)

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The League of One Ounce Mice

This is one of the very few inappropriate acronyms I recall from a list I compiled some years ago. It was a list created in reaction to the improbability that so many organizations, charities and medical conditions happening so serendipitously to be called by a name whose initials spelt out another word that elegantly summed up its mission statement. The chances of the most apt name for their body creating such a word I considered suspicious. I am not a cynic, but it was almost as if they had contrived these names for the very purpose of creating the acronym. Surely there would have to exist somewhere just as many inappropriate acronyms. So for every SAD, the seasonal affective disorder that oh so conveniently made people sad, there just had to be a Sitting On Floors Association. There had, or the world was making stuff up that wasn't real. Of course, the real world then came along to confound my fun. President Obama's attempt to save a million lives a year in the US (give or take) by introducing health reforms was derided by Republicans worried at how poor, unhealthy people keen to survive illness might interrupt the lucrative circle of insurance and health provision. The phrase that seemed to sum up the threat was 'death panels', a reference to the body that directs health resources here. And who are the death panels? I presume they mean the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Commonly known as NICE. Nice.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

When words collide

Notwithstanding the ridiculous infrequency of one's blogs, (the last entry appears to have been in 2006) I should say one of the things I like at the moment. The way words collide. It's only one of the things I like, but fundamental. Words make sentences according to rules, each word emitting a semantic pulse that colours and interrupts the pulses emitted from bordering words. An adjective will butter the following noun with a basting of meaning that throws up a new entity. For example the words blue and cigarette together will create somehow the sense of a roll of paper enclosing a cylinder of tobacco that is the very colour blue. If the next word is falls, then the roll of tobacco, still reeling from its violent meeting with the word blue is now descending, dragging the colour blue with it. How charmingly obvious, yet the sentence governs the whole affair, keeps it caged and tamed. The sentence keeps it motivated by the overriding intentions of the author. The blue cigarette doesn't fall in a vacuum (not unless the rest of the sentence happens to be 'in a vacuum' it doesn't. The phrase is also motivated. Above it is motivated by my need to generate an example, and that is generated by my motivation to write a blog. As mentioned in previous blogs, in my case that is to mop up unused time. So those words are all in service. However they needn't be. Grammarians and structuralists aside, words can act without authorization. When Afternoon acts on Mumps it generates a batch of totally new things. Memories, maybe. A time and an illness are not common bedfellows, so they throw up a neologistic sense of something being created. Let's try, Thursday dislocations, March Cataracts, Wartime cramp. They're all explosive new things, like mixing chemicals without the foreknowledge of their reactions. The magic is that you don't know what new chimera will be thrown up. Take Spray and Muffin. Two words that have no general grammatical relationship in the way that a colour and an object do, will have unpredictable results. Spray muffin is parsed to my ear in the same way as spray tan - a product that adds convenience to a desirable end result - the tan. Therefore a spray muffin is a feat of NPD by a bakery that gives you an instant hit of muffin from an aerosol. I leave the manufacturing industries to work out the detail.