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Told You So October 24, 2009

Posted by markswill in Navel Gazing.

Nothing satisfies the frail ego like a dash of smug reassurance – just ask failed Lib-Dem leadership hopeful Vince Cable (or skinned-teeth F1 champ, Jenson Button). But journalists have to move swiftly to capitalise on something they scrawled in yesterday’s papers/today’s fishwrap, bloggers even less so. Except for Arianna Huffington of course.

Nevertheless it’s with a certain sang froid that I look back on some recent postings and mutter if not ‘I told you so’, then at least ‘pass me my clever clogs, I wanna go dancing’.

Take my last epistle on declining standards in what’s left of the national press. I sat down with this morning’s Guardian – well somebody has to – and without really trying (i.e. I was skimming) found several howling typos within a few minutes. These included two missing possessive apostrophes and ‘heroin’ suffixed with a rogue ‘e’. So has the Guardian entirely dispensed with sub-editors, or just succumbed to the fancy-pants phonetics espoused by whacko educationalists who’ve spent too much time hanging around deprived housing estates?

Then we have my September 28th thoughts on the disappearance of local abattoirs due to EU legislation, a phenomenon accelerated by the growth of major supermarket chains. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the few remaining slaughterhouses in these parts has just gone (pork?) belly-up, partly blaming Hereford councillors for allowing a huge new Asda to open in the city alongside two existing Tescos superstores, a Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl and a Sainsburys. By the way, empty premises now constitute some 40% of what was the city’s main shopping centre. And my butcher, who now has to use an abattoir thirty miles further afield, has just put his prices up… again).

Meanwhile I see that Barnes & Noble has just driven its own nail into the coffin of the booktrade I wrung my hands over in ‘Aging Disgracefully’ in mid-September. Yep, the world’s largest bookseller has followed Amazon (with the Kindle) and Waterstones (Sony’s eReader) with the launch of their ‘Nook’ which will if taken to its apparently intended conclusion result in the end of all those pesky books, bookshops and the staff who work in them. It’s a businessplan I’d love to pore over at my leisure, but meanwhile…

My final bout of slapping my own back came after partaking in a Webinar (that’s like a seminar but via the comfort of your home computer using technology that turned out to be rather rickety) on ‘Electric Drive: can we really meet the challenges and embrace the electric car?’ Following my May 8th posting which, whilst wholeheartedly accepting the need for a lower-carbon transport system, cast some doubt on the future of electric vehicles, I was impressed to hear someone from the virtual floor, as it were, pipe up with the claim that China controlled a finite and fast-dwindling supply (mainly in Tibet) of the lithium from which they make the lion’s share of the batteries that power most electric and hybrid vehicles. (There’s a terrible pun in there if you winkle it out). None of the learned panel which, with varying degrees of clarity and conviction had proselytised  on the glorious future of the electric car, could satisfactorily address this dilemma.

This by the way, came just 24 hours after the news that each of the few hundred FCX hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars Honda plans to lease in the USA cost around a million dollars each to produce. This smacks of the diminishing returns fiasco orchestrated by General Motors in the 1990s who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on every one of the EVI electric cars they would only lease for one year, eventually recalled and then quietly crushed.

So much for the sustainability of alternative transport for which better solutions than limited energy sources or hugely expensive hydrogen-fueled engines must still be found.

Sadly though, it’s not actually unalloyed self-aggrandisement this week, for in that self-same blog on the dubious prospects for electric cars, I lauded the almost spiritual virtues of my ancient and oil-hungry Lancia Gamma Coupe. And as some of you may recall from my Sept 6th scrawl, the Gamma unceremoniously exploded its guts somewhere on the M5, the upshot of which means a replacement or engine (assuming one can be found) or an expensively re-built one (assuming the parts to do so can be found). Which may well be seen by green transport addicts as a case of divine retribution, but find me an electric car that gets me to Asda and back with a freezer full of meat slaughtered somewhere the other side of the M25 and which costs less than a 30 year-old Italian classic and I’ll buy the bugger like a shot.

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Cheap and Cheerless October 19, 2009

Posted by markswill in Media.

Of course it was a lie to claim, as I did in my penultimate blog, that I was turning my back on a glittering career in ink-on-paper. But whilst a magazine and newspaper industry that has little to offer anyone over, ooh, 45 who isn’t already a proprietor, senior executive or celebrity columnist is clearly best abandoned, I’m still scrabbling around to find some form of work which doesn’t involve tortured syntax or juggling ad/ed ratios.

In the meantime the prospect of a bit of scribbling or some management consultancy occasionally emerges from left field, faintly rebutting what was recently and bitterly described to me as “the end of freelance hackery.” Depressingly however, all such opportunities command rates far lower than they might’ve been even just a year ago, and in some cases not at all. The validation for this being either that one is lucky to be paid something rather than nothing or, in the case where it actually is nothing, at least one’s getting one’s name about and/or gaining experience which might aid future job prospects.

According to a depressing little segment on R4’s You and Yours, thousands of graduates are settling for cleaning jobs or McDonalds’ shiftwork, so working for nowt in the trade they’ve been expensively educated to excel in might make a miserable sort of sense, but not in my kitchen. However as an old friend and colleague likes to remind me whenever the moaning begins, back in the mid-eighties when I had my own publishing company for which he was then a contractor, I used the same argument for paying pittance rates to novice moguls. (Naturally my memory is rather patchy on this).

Peer group banter aside, there is a more serious consequence of the steep reduction in rates paid to publishing freelancers and its inevitable bedfellow, staff overload, and that is the equally sharp decline in the quality of content. And thus despite their ever rising cover prices, to obviate the cost of commissioning original content even national newspapers are syndicating major features from foreign media which is of questionable interest to UK readers – the Observer being a notable culprit ­– and many specialist magazines that routinely ran distinctive, well-crafted consumerist features now merely regurgitate press releases illustrated with images provided gratis to all and sundry.

Of course this is partly if not largely a consequence of a web publishing culture where minimal revenues demand cheap content and so print media managers, at last mindful that the web may be their economic enemy rather than a value-adding ally, feel obliged to follow suit. They may also be convinced that attention spans diminished by prolonged and reductive web viewership will be happy with shorter, relatively insubstantial content on the printed page. And they may be right.

This conveniently sanctions editorial staff reductions and the employment of cheap inexperience masquerading as career opportunity (or self-aggrandisement ) which, quite apart from raising stress levels of the remaining incumbents, results in poor writing and poorer subbing. In many cases the ability to churn out endless punnery is valued more highly than crafting a good editorial argument or painting an evocative pen portrait and even major players these days are minefields of typos and senseless sentences. Which as I implied above, seems not to matter to those who master our universe and at this stage of the game it is frankly not for me to know definitively whether cheaper and cheaper content is indeed the cause of lower and lower circulations – or vice versa.

But this stage of the game is not its conclusion and my cynical belief is that if the print media capitulates to reduced attention spans and the consequent diminution in content quality that this fosters if not actually demands, then sooner or later the jig will be up for all but highly specialised journals, media aimed at an older market (which is, quite literally, dying off), and a monosyballic sleb press interested only in Victoria Beckham’s bra-buying hell.

Which perhaps matters not. Perhaps future generations won’t use media as we understand it. Perhaps everything that shapes human destinies and culture will be provided by squinting at and grunting into mobile devices which, if dystopian visions of the future are your cup of conspiracy theorising, will delight the fewer and fewer giant corporations and legislative regimes which govern our lives.

And as I vexatiously attempt to reduce my entirely irrelevant free-to-view blog down to a size that can be conveniently consumed via two scrolls of an iPhone, all I can say is ‘bring it on’.

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They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore. Or At All. October 6, 2009

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics.

Although it’s not a discipline that bothers professional columnists ­– and I should know, I used to be one – since they have the luxury of  choosing how often (or not) they scribble, repetition is something I feel bloggists should graciously avoid. But am I the only reasonably sentient being who is not incensed by our government’s and, indeed our government-in-waiting’s fiddling around on the fringes of our economic ruin whilst spouting unconvincing platitudes about recovery?

Yet barm-pot Brown and the boy Cameron continue to witter earnestly about “creating the conditions” for regenerating employment whilst failing to identify where the jobs will actually come from. And so I return to my theme of July 27th, namely the decline of manufacturing, a tragedy made all the worse by our servant/masters’ determined reliance on the very phenomena that got us into this mess to haul us out of it.

Every blip in Tesco’s quarterlies or the Nationwide’s house price index are the measures which excite news editors and, presumably, the Treasury, and although Darling Alistair emptily threatens bankers who pay themselves bazillions in bonuses for taking irresponsible risks with what is, quite literally our money, this surely cannot be where salvation lies?

John Meynard Keynes, were he around today, would be urging the government to invest in infrastructure projects and manufacturing – and mindful of globalisation, preferably export-led. But we hear not a peep of this from the media’s financial pundits, let alone anyone allegedly in charge of this sinking ship. I can’t believe such long-term strategies haven’t occurred to them because many of our European peers are doing just that, and with glimmers of success. The days are long over when globalisation at least gave GB Ltd’s financial services the ability to thrive, whereas globalisation itself has moved into overdrive and only the countries that make and sell things abroad will survive and prosper. Witness Iceland, which never exported anything except ludicrously leveraged bank loans and now wallows in bankruptcy the likes of which even the IMF may not be able (or willing) to ameliorate.

And as no lesser financial commentator (!) than the Guardian’s Deborah Orr noted recently, “The west is hoping that human resilience and ingenuity will find a way back to the norm of perpetual economic growth (my italics)… but the idea of perpetual economic growth, even if it can be massaged back to life in the short term, has had its day.”

So Keynesian doctrines ignored, what will replace it as the structure which enables a civilised society to remain civilised? Who will buy the houses, the cars, the white goods and put Amelia through university if there’s no money around except that which the government prints and the only jobs really being created are in a public sector groaning at the seams with its responsibility to maintain a civilised (but bankrupt) society? Communism? Benign dictatorship? I don’t think so.

And whilst you yawn over that, comfy in the knowledge that house prices have risen for the third successive month and George Osborne’s promised that if his bunch of posh shysters lie their way into power they’ll absolve employers of paying national insurance on the first ten new staffers they hire, spare a thought for the poor classic car owner. (That’s me, by the way).

With exquisite irony, I was on my way to the Lancia Gamma Consortium’s AGM and weekend runabout last month, and just days after it had been filmed for Top Gear, when troublesome noises began emanating from the bowels of my beloved S2 Coupe. By the time I got onto the M5 troublesome turned into horrid and before the bugger seized or exploded, I hit the hard shoulder and called the AA. Long and short being that the car is now with one of the few outfits in the UK still qualified (and sufficiently arsed) to minister to ancient Lancias, fortuitously located less than 30 miles from where it expired, who quickly ascertained that it wasn’t the relatively easy/cheap to fettle valve-gear  that’d packed up. So I am now awaiting the call that could well bankrupt me, the call that says they’ve got round to removing the engine and discovering that a virtually unobtainable big-end bearing or con-rod has said bye-byes.

Assiduous investigation has however unearthed a rebuilt engine in Bavaria, albeit one that’s resided in a shed for the last 15 years, and another in a barn in Essex that ‘only’ needs new camshafts and a couple of valves which the vendor can conveniently supply… all at prices you can imagine. So whichever way you cut it I probably have months of fun, travel and adventure ahead of me, but there is an upside to this, and one that could benefit the greater good.

If, as I suspect, we are careening into double-dip (as in big-bloody-dipper) recession, and the bastards in charge haven’t seen the light manufacturing-wise, then none of us will be able to afford the new cars that we won’t be making anymore or the imported ones that have become too expensive, then there’ll be a growing need for men in beige overalls with five biros in their top pockets well practiced in sucking air through their teeth as they survey the knackered Mondeo and Astra engines that only they know how to fix. Hey, it’ll be just like Cuba (but no cigars).

And I think my forthcoming apprenticeship bloodying my knuckles on a weird, 28 year-old motor designed by mischievous if not malevolent Italians will put me in a prime position to lead the nation’s economic recovery.

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