jump to navigation

PUBLISHING FOLLY AHEAD: HELP WANTED June 12, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Media.
20 comments

If you love the printed word, skip the next eight paras. Otherwise…

Reporting in the Guardian’s Media Blog on May 18th, the sainted David Hepworth reported comments proudly made by Zillah Byng-Maddick, the newly anointed CEO of Future Publishing, after announcing hundreds of job-cuts as the company rushes onto a digital-only, erm, future. “Now,” he noted, “a single content and marketing team would produce all content.” Zillah Byng-Maddick – who oversaw Auto Trader’s transition from print to digital – claimed  ‘our expert, trusted content enables us to attract large communities of highly engaged customers who want to buy things, and that’s exceptionally appealing to our clients’.

“No mention,” notes Hepworth,  “of either readers or advertisers there. Instead it’s customers and clients, two words that an editor used to be able to go through an entire career without allowing them to sully their lips.”

In fact Future, which is the only publicly quoted (what used to be called) magazine publisher in the country, and thus beholden to shareholders who give not a fig about anything but profit, is busy selling off its titles to whoever’ll buy them. Most recently this means Immediate Media, who also acquired all of BBC’s magazines in 2011 and has re-energised them, especially the once considered moribund but now hugely profitable Radio Times which sells 830,000 copies an issue.

I used to work for Future in the ‘90s and greatly enjoyed doing so but under a succession of hard-nosed CEOs and CFOs  the “digital transition” means blood on the carpet and a lot of creative types wondering what’s hitting them. The story’s the same right across magazine publishing with the emphasis on providing what advertisers rather than readers want, based on the assumption that as Byng-Maddick slyly implies, readers will buy anything editorial tells them to buy because at least in the short term, editorial is trusted. That, in my view, is because the instant availability of information in today’s Wiki-world seems to infer an aura of authority.

And then we have Robert Peston writing in the London Evening Standard that, “The relentless cycle of cost-cutting at traditional news media is giving growing and potentially worrying power to the public relations industry.”

He then bemoans, “the fetishisation of hiring young people who supposedly understand the digital world… but (who have) few proper contacts. Now newspapers are filled with reports based on spurious PR-generated surveys, because they lack the resources to generate their own, high-quality stories.”

And yet at the recent Hay Festival, there was an overt ‘Print Isn’t Dead’ theme – a bit rich coming from an organisation which avidly embraces digital readers. Nevertheless an interesting item in its promo-bumf virtually celebrated the fact that we spent £93million less on printed books last year than in 2013, but in the next breath reckoned that “by producing high-quality editions, traditional publishers can shore up sales and retain the loyalty of self-confessed papyrophiles.” (I assumed ‘papyrophiles’ are readers who like ink-on-paper). A claim possibly justified by the statistic that sales of hardbacks rose by 11.5% in America last year.

Whatever you make of all this, now might not seem the time to be launching a print magazine, especially so if you’re middle-aged and somewhat phobic towards digital media. So of course that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And I need your help.

As occasionally reflected in these blogs, I’m a big fan of old cars and ‘bikes. (I was going to witter on here about the monstrous consequences to my Citruin XM after recently hitting a badger at 80mph, or replacing the catalytic converter on my Twingo money-pit, but you’d only laugh). My career in automotive journalism began in 1972 in the offices of Car magazine where I’d conceived a bratty little motorcycle magazine called, with vaulting imagination, Bike. And extraordinarily, after many incarnations it remains the market leader. But Car’s staff taught me that original prose and careful editing mattered, and in its day it was superior in both respects to anything else around. Its stellar writers included Doug Blain, L.J.K Setright and Mel Nichols and their descriptive powers, love of both language and machinery inspired and instructed me.

Now I am old I miss those great writers and their freedom to let their knowledge and critical enthusiasm run wild over 2, 3, or 4,000+ words. Today’s motoring (and motorcycling) magazines rarely contain articles over 1500 words long and have become tediously formulaic. And this because their writers are constrained by the short attention spans of a digital constituency, or as Peston implies, because the emphasis is on young hacks who don’t know how to craft a long-form essay.

But I believe that those of us who grew up with cars in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s – i.e. today’s classics – still know how to read more than a page of bland text displayed on a desktop and who appreciate the informed opinions of people who can still write it. So this autumn I’m investing, if not squandering my savings in what will be a small, but perfectly formed periodical full of great writing about great cars, the great men and women responsible for them, and their great escapades and achievements.

I already have some fine contributors onboard, but I’d ask any of you who have such stories to tell, and who can really write as well as read, to contact me – or recommend appropriate others. If nothing else, in these strange and difficult times for the printed word, it should be quite an adventure: williams.mark1@gmail.com

Add a comment, check out previous blogs or sign up to get ’em automatically via the righthand column

Age Concerned June 4, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
10 comments

I’ve been trying to finish this blog since the end of April but work, hedonism and indolence have proven effective hindrances. However a slight lull in the proceedings now allow me to wrap it up and as long as the lull continues – which it looks set to for a few more days – another one might well ensue before you can say “Whining Willy”.

I recently attended a protest meeting in opposition to HS2, albeit specifically concerned with the hideous blight the initial part of the route will have on North London. Most of the speakers were well-versed on their subjects, whether it be the damaging effects 10+ years of constructing the railway will have on health, housing, small businesses and the environment but only Frank Dobson MP, who represents part of Camden, alluded to the bigger picture. HS2, he pointed out, was conceived “on the back of a fag-packet” by the previous Labour government with almost no consideration for its likely negative effects or, indeed, its alleged economic benefits, a conception the Coalition government has subsumed with little more serious research and such as been done has concluded that the planned route was deeply flawed and the economic benefits decidedly sketchy.

But I am not about to rant against the whole misguided, damaging and invalid waste of taxpayers’ money that HS2 represents, rather to offer some more peripheral observations that the protest meeting prompted. Held in Britain’s home of folk music, Cecil Sharp House in Camden, it was almost entirely if well attended by people in their 50s, 60s and beyond, the baby boomers who, depending on your viewpoint, are largely responsible for Britain’s economic and social ills or alternatively, its cultural virtues. Naturally I subscribe to the former belief, but in my quite considerable experience as a bona fide silver serf  I’ve learnt  that us lot tend to run the committees, the pressure groups, the local charity organisations and the like that arguably make life worth living in a society where successive governments have capped or reduced funding for anything remotely related to quality of life.

I worked out that most of my friends and more intimate acquaintances sit on committees or help run voluntary outfits of one sort or another, many several times over. Then again, I actually gave up chairing a music and events charity recently for reasons that will probably be familiar to many of us who engage in such activities, namely a wearying clash of personalities with one particularly vociferous individual who was a disruptive element. Which underlines the inherent weakness of working for a voluntary body where there’s no coherent chain of command: lazy-bones or troublemakers can’t be sacked, and the only reward for your often quite significant labour is the satisfaction of goals achieved… or not as the case may be.

Unsurprisingly then, over the years I’ve noticed that in each of the outfits I’ve been involved with there’s been a steady turnover of committee members who for whatever reason couldn’t hack it any longer and who felt they had better things to do with their time. And attending that HS2 meeting, I was reminded that in many cases “life’s too short” could often be another reason for bailing out, because I fear despite all logic and all the protests, the government is going to railroad – sorry – this white elephant through in order to save face… and provide jobs for the boys and the bankers.

I’m now, and regretfully, of retirement age but the slippers, golf clubs and Rhine River cruises that are synonymous with this don’t really appeal, even if I had a decent pension to fund them (alright, I can afford the slippers). Most of my peers and pals also choose or are economically obliged to carry on working and as I said, almost all of us do voluntary work. The National Trust was recently criticised for working its small army of middle- and let’s face it, old-aged volunteers too hard, but without them that organisation, like many other so-called cultural institutions, would simply collapse.

So what I’m getting at is that Britain’s volunteer workforce ought, at the very least, to get tax breaks on what money we do earn, and for those who earn nothing but spend significant amounts of time helping others, then how about a bigger state pension Mr Bloody Osborne?

Check out previous blogs or subscribe to get them automatically on the rare occasions the blighters do appear, by checking the right hand panel.

 

 

 

Chinese Wails January 28, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.
5 comments

If you live or spend much time in London, one of the less edifying spectacles of the post-Xmas silly season has been ‘Bonkers’ Boris Johnson and his good pal Dave ‘Posh Boy’ Cameron bigging up London as a magnet for global tourism in the Evening Standard.

To some extent this is a grouchy response to France’s claims that Paris attracts more overseas visitors than our capital city, the dark subtext perhaps being that any country whose leader couldn’t make up his mind between his mistress and his, er, ex-mistress can’t be trusted with anything, even its tourism statistics. But beyond such unspoken ridicule, I find it sad if not pathetic that Britain, and in particular London places so much emphasis on tourism for its economic recovery.

Dropping onerous visa requirements for visitors from China, a country which has already decimated our manufacturing base – admittedly with our short-sighted complicity – so’s to get more of them posing for snapshots outside Buck House would be okay if it was reciprocated. Indeed if the people who rule China weren’t so busy stashing billions (trillions?) of yuan in western tax havens and handing out brutal prison sentences to any of their subjects who dare to criticise them for it, or indeed anything at all, well then I might be in favour of relaxing the restrictions.

And as we continue to sell  large chunks of our so-called public services to the Chinese, e.g. energy, railways and the increasingly privatised  NHS to the orientals the answer to the leftie media’s regular hand-wringing about ‘Who owns Britain?’ seems to be  ‘the Chinese, of course.’ Because in the global economy that we must now accept that we’re but a tiny, wee part of, the Chinese have the biggest chequebooks. It almost makes me wish we lived in North Korea or Cuba where foreign investment can’t have any effect on how the country’s run, because by tacitly accepting the double-standards and oppressive nature of its ruling classes, how long will it be before Boris and Dave start telling us that they don’t really have a human rights problem at all with China and we should therefore welcome their affluent middle classes as our incipient economic masters?

Talking of the economy – which of course  I must – am I alone in pouring scorn on the fashion and ‘lifestyle’ pages of the meeja which almost exclusively feature garments and gizmos that most of us can’t afford?

A darling little lampshade from Rothschild & Bickers may be a steal at just £380 if you’re lottery winner with Barratts mansion to furnish, but frankly when I need a new pair of jeans I’m off to Uni-Qlo with nineteen quid in my fist rather than £135 or even, gulp, £500 for something ‘a little special’ from Scotch & Soda or Levis. From my days as a mugazine editor I of course understand the value of aspirational content, but even for ladeez with rich hubbies surely £199 for a pair of kecks from Sandro or an understated frock from the ever-smiley Vicky Beckham at £1,550 are clear cases of the fashion eds having a laugh?

My own female friends, or at least the ones who’re willing to discuss it with a man who isn’t Gok Wan, tend like me to seek out a nice bargain, and even my WIFE (a term I still find a pleasing novelty), also tends to frequent secondhand shops and the aforementioned Uni-Qlo on a regular basis, for although careful with our dosh and quite ancient, we’re still unabashedly vain.

But if print media readers really can afford to patronise these posho brands, most of whom I’ve never heard of, perhaps I’m dead wrong about the nation’s finances? In which case the far eastern sweatshop owners had better up their game and kill off the Italian, Spanish and few other remaining European garment-manufacturing countries if they want to supply the growing number of British fashionistas…  thus guaranteeing their UK visa status.

Finally, now that I’m spliced, duty obliges me to bang the drum for Kiss Me First, the just launched paperback of the debut novel by Lottie Moggach, who is technically my step-daughter!

Bugger the nepotism, it's a fantastic read

Bugger the nepotism, it’s a fantastic read

Anyone even vaguely interested in how the internet can govern, change and indeed create personalities will be riveted by this hugely original psychological thriller, and especially its narrative tone. Worthily shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize, it’s right up there with Gone Girl for its unexpected twists, turns and final reveal. Bugger nepotism, it’s a truly fantastic read. Oh, and you can get a better handle on Lottie and her book here: http://www.picador.com/authors/lottie-moggach …or in her own words, here: www.lottiemoggach.com

 Check out the right-hand column to read previous blogs, subscribe to get them automatically or add a withering comment.

Hippy New Year? January 6, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
20 comments

I stopped making New Year resolutions a long time ago. They always got broken, usually within days. But the early January habit of wondering what the ensuing 12 months might bring persists and, I suspect, for many of you too.

As we continue to suffer the ill- and sometimes disasterous effects of global warming – the river at the bottom of my street has burst its banks – 2014 may be the year that the government gets serious about climate change, although as the waters rose and seas defences were breached around our fragile isle the news that some 1500 jobs are going in the DoE including, “hundreds” in the flood defences department, wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring.

I’d also like to think that our coalition government may force Brussels to capitulate to our need to free ourselves from some of the more ridiculous and debilitating legislation its unelected bureaucrats oblige us to enact: I’m thinking immigration controls (we live on a small, already crowded, socio-economically divided island), mad health and safety rules and bankrupt carbon trading. But again, the political bombast may well be strident and repetitive, but the reality might be something else. Hello Ukip?

The slow groundswell of anger at the excesses of unfettered capitalism that obliged us to bail-out a busted banking system post-2008 and continues to award fat cats obscene, tax-free rewards for exploiting the vulnerable – I’m thinking the privatised utilities, railways and health services – may also bear fruit especially if, as I suspect, the housing price bubble bursts and throws the financial sector into hock to the poor taxpayer yet again. (There are even mutterings about re-nationalising the railways which, having spent the best part of Saturday traveling less than 250 miles at ruinous cost on three trains all of which ran woefully late, is a notion I’m warming to). And as long as the government rails (sic) emptily against the parlous fiscal legacies of the last Labour government whilst viciously cutting public services, simultaneously ramping up the national debt and championing white elephants like HS-2 there is some chance of this happening.

However offset against these perhaps encouraging symptoms of imminent change, one reluctantly realises that fewer and fewer people can be arsed to vote, especially the young who register whatever dissatisfactions they might have with the status quo via Twatter, FarceBerk and Instagrumble, none of whom have much effect of our so-called policymakers who are too frit of these and other digital giants to pay much heed to their users, much less tax their profits. This very weekend Head Boy Cameron offered an obvious, if desperate vote-winning sop to the one group who do still vote in large numbers, namely the oldsters, guaranteeing them that pensions would rise with inflation for the foreseeable future. But no political party has yet come up with a way to restore, nay instill faith in our political system amongst 18-40 year-olds and get them voting in droves. Ending Punch’n’Judy grandstanding, policymaking on the hoof, empty rhetoric and rampant corruption might be a start, but our public servant/masters, most of whom have never lived or worked outside of politics, still just don’t seem to get it.

But I end this bout of crystal ball-gazing with the hope that for anyone reading this semantic swill the year will at least bring some degree of personal satisfaction and comfort, and that the death-rate amongst friends and peers diminishes a little – too many went AWOL in 2013. After decades of commitment-phobia and recent-ish romantic misadventures – not necessarily one and the same thing – somewhat to my own surprise I recently got married, so I know things can get better if risks are taken.

So at risk of sounding like an old hippy, why not take some yourself in 2014?

Read previous blogs and/or sign-up to get ’em automatically by checking the righthand panel.

Nothing To Fear But…? April 5, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.
19 comments

Not that it really matters, but the unusually long hiatus in my bloggery – by recent standards, anyway – is down to the fact that just as I was putting the finishing curlicues to a searing expose of how politicians and commercial interests employ fear to get their way in the world, my friend Dick Pountain did a much better job than I’d just attempted in his newly posted blog, which I commend you to read here 

Admiring though I am of his insight and intellect – and I really do advise you sign up to his regular musings – it left me with a metaphoric hole to fill which happily was remedied by a visit to the Royal Court to see The Low Road, written by Bruce Norris. You may’ve been luck enough to see his last play performed there, Clybourne Park, a brisk, darkly humorous excoriation of racism and property speculation in Chicago, with über-Hobbit Martin Freeman especially impressive. The Low Road fills an even broader canvas, namely the entire history of modern America woven into a neat and devastating parable on the venality of its financial system, with a noxious side-order of religious bigotry and racism. It’s a sprawling, three hour work wryly narrated by a non-judgemental Adam Smith, and it would’ve had even more wallop had it been edited down by 30 minutes, but it had the desired effect of leaving me both highly entertained and very angry.

Coincidentally, novelist Sebastian Faulks vented similar anger in a recent Evening Standard article. As in Norris’s play, he observed that the economic woes caused by a breed of bankers who profited from the naïve trust of their investors hasn’t resulted in a single banker, hedge fund manager or other financial huckster being imprisoned for the misery they’ve caused. He wrote:

“The FSA (Financial Services Authority) which was meant to police the system was too weak to do its job. The ratings agencies misunderstood the products they were rating. The ‘big four’ accountancy firms signed off things they should never have let pass. The ‘magic circle’ law firms helped financial houses construct (their) lethal instruments. Crazed by greed, the traders told us they had spread the risk so thin that it could never come home to roost.”

Well we now know how wrong they were, with almost everyone who isn’t earning a proverbial mint in the City suffering from the consequences. In a week when the Chancellor substantially shrunk the social welfare safety net to the extent that millions of the poorest will lose out, whilst simultaneously he reduced the tax rates for the richest, we are required to accept that such policies are necessary to ensure the future comfort and prosperity for all.

Then we had Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and like his master George Osborne and most of the coalition cabinet, a sleekly-padded upper-class millionaire, telling R4 listeners that lowering the tax rate for high earners would encourage more of them to move to Britain and spend money that would provide employments for others – the same ‘trickle down’ theory that Mrs Thatcher’s last government manifestly proved not to work. On other occasions, Alexander and his cohorts have also defended the apparently obscene bonuses given to executives of the banks that we bailed out and in several cases now largely own, as being essential to preserving Britain, or more particularly London, as a global financial hub vital to the economy. An economy which, although he didn’t mention it, successive Tory (and recent Labour) governments would otherwise have destroyed by letting our manufacturing and energy industries go hang or become owned by foreigners who don’t pay much if any UK tax.

And whilst I don’t want to turn this into a tedious analysis of why this is balderdash, I will say that I just don’t get it.

Personally of course, I’m lucky. I may not earn much, but I don’t pay rent or a mortgage and have no kids to support, but my relentlessly rising cost of living is such that I have to watch very carefully what I spend on utilities, clothing, transport etc. My heart therefore goes out to those less fortunate than me and I believe that all of us would perhaps, possibly, just conceivably be more willing to submit to the strictures of millionaire politicians who understand not a jot what it’s like out in the real world of broken Britain if they brought some of the bankers to book.

It isn’t even ironic that the ‘papers are full of stories about unemployed people who’ve been thrown into jail for defrauding the benefits system of a few thousand pounds when those who brought the economy to its knees, and caused further cuts to that system, go scot-free.

Indeed after a nod to the now dormant Occupy movement, as Faulks also noted, “ It is difficult to understand why there are not peaceful protests every day outside RBS, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and all the other places where a few men conspired to gamble with money that did not belong to them – and got away with it.”

My own theory is that Osborne, Alexander, Cameron and their fat-cat pals in the City have cunningly and deliberately made it obvious that any mass protest or show of indignation would risk the financial security, pathetically limited though it may be, of those who did the protesting.

In other words we are obliged to be afraid, very afraid, of rocking the boat.

Add a comment, read previous rants or sign up to get ’em automatically via the right hand panel

Like Life, Only Better March 10, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, That's Entertainment.
21 comments

One of the (many) criticisms made of this blog is that it’s almost unremittingly doom-laden. To which I’d say, ‘Guilty as charged’. But as one gets older and from a growing catalogue of experience forms a world view, unless you enjoy great wealth and the insulation from reality it can afford, such pessimism is hard to avoid. Being a life-long, card-carrying hack, this augurs an almost feral need to communicate which ignores such constraints as readers’ sensitivities or sympathies, constraints which the nature of the blogosphere, e.g. no editors, no rules, no overriding context, further renders irrelevant.

But it’s not all gloom and dismay out there and as noted at the end of my last bilious outing, I also sometimes arrogantly feel moved to share some of the good stuff that I’ve enjoyed recently, which invariably means kulcher. So…

Thanks to my current day job, I can recommend some cracking films just about to come out, the best being Steven ‘I’m Giving Up Making Movies to Become a Painter’ Soderbergh’s Side Effects. I’m a huge fan of Soderbergh who’s gleefully defied categorisation with films as diverse as crime capers Ocean’s 11, 12 & 13, disease thriller Contagion, his better-than-the-original re-make of Solaris and even that low-key titillation, The Girlfriend Experience. Although revisiting the corporate malfeasance he reflected in The Informant!, just when you think Side Effects is a worthy treatise on the nastiness of Big Pharma, it suddenly goes somewhere else altogether.  And as a trio of characters in a battle of psychologically troubled wills, Jude Law, having recently snoozed his way through Anna Karenina, Dragon Tattoo’s chameleon-like Rooney Mara and much to my amazement, Catherine Zeta-Jones, have never been better.

Theatre director Rufus Norris’s movie debut Broken also ends up being more than the sum of its narrative twists and turns, namely a meditation on the moral state of the nation, (spoiler alert: it’s not looking good). Deploying his native English accent for the first time in ages Tim Roth plays a well-meaning if slightly vapid father of an adolescent daughter who circumstance obliges to grow up fast. She’s played with great spirit and credibility by newcomer Eloise Laurence and although violent, bleak and prone to arguably gratuitous flashbacks, Broken is well worth the ticket price.

Music video director Eran Creevy’s Welcome to the Punch finds James McAvoy playing a bitter cop out to avenge the crook who nearly killed him during a mega-bank heist (the reliably intimidating slap-head, Mark Strong). Structurally it’s kinda Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels for the internet generation, but despite a low-ish budget, its noir-ish view of a soulless London and excellent turns from all concerned including Andrea Risborough as McAvoy’s professional foil elevate it into something rather superior.

McAvoy’s been a busy boy lately and will shortly turn up as Bruce Robertson, a decidedly amoral detective in Filth, co-written by another newish director, Jon S. Baird from Irvine Welsh’s eponymous novel. Set like Welsh’s Trainspotting in Glasgow and occasionally saddled with the same incomprehensible dialect – bring on the subtitles, please – Robertson is trying to win back a wife understandably estranged by his wilful, often comically OTT misbehavior.

Even more entertaining, uplifting even for men of a certain age (guess who?), is Good Vibrations, a rousing biog of Terri Hooley, the god-father of Northern Ireland’s punk rock scene. I was barely aware such a thing existed, but Hooley’s transformation from hippie-ish record-shop owner to politically savvy pogo evangelist is most affecting, ending with him leading a raucously improbable version of Sony Bono’s Laugh At Me to a huge, ecstatic Belfast audience. Richard Dormer as Hooley and Jodie Whittaker as his more grounded wife are both fab.

But sadly, man cannot live by celluloid images alone, although David Thompson’s masterful The Big Screen is the best book on their development and social influence yet. And here’s a few more tomes I’ve recently read and can recommend especially if, like me, you managed no more than 0-level English. Very different from Whoops!, his razor sharp critique of cowboy capitalism, John Lanchester’s novel Capital cunningly interweaves the disparate, often deeply unattractive inhabitants of a gentrified London street who’re confronted by a malign trespasser. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl on t’other hand is a more straightforward thriller but written in an odd style that quickly turns compelling as the mystery unfolds. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshid Hamid is a thoughtful, cleverly wrought novella whose title says it all, with a pitiless final twist.  Somewhat inevitably I’ll finish with Deborah Moggach’s latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel, which following her movie-inspiring Best Exotic Marigold Ditto gives further hope and hilarity to those of us awash with middle-aged testiness and torpor.

Turning novels into scripts of course courts peril, but having enjoyed Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time I was, ahem, curious to see how it might pan out as a play and given Luke Treadaway’s astonishing performance as the OCD-ridden Christopher Boone, Simon Stevens’ adaptation is just great. Having transferred the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, its stunningly-staged production is now at the Apollo. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that all my other puffs are for National Theatre enterprises, too, although the most extraordinary – and I use the word advisedly – is a walk-around piece performed in the basement warren of Somerset House. In The Beginning Was The End is a witty, engaging and often disturbing examination of corporate and technological dystopia which obviously appealed hugely to this writer.

Also at the NT is Port, a narratively astute celebration of the human spirit, again by Simon Stevens, played across 13 years in a Stockport sink estate with some brilliant performances and a breathtaking stage design. Finally at the Southbank there’s Frances de la Tour’s, ahem, tour de force as the droll, obstinate owner of a crumbling country pile in People. Another magnificent Lyttleton staging, and although some critics disparaged Alan Bennett’s script even my film-fixated sister thought it highly entertaining, infused as it is with his usual subtle poignancy.

But that’s enough niceness for now – next week we’ll be back to grumbling normality with… Dubai!

Make an acerbic comment, read previous blogs or subscribe to get ’em automatically via the righthand column

The Rise (& Fall) of the Machines March 1, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.
21 comments

Making my journey back home to Wales last Friday, because I didn’t have time to explore the rich culinary paradise that is Praed Street, I found myself buying a sandwich in Sainsbury’s Paddington store. Like its competitors and indeed WH Smith’s cheerless outlet at the same station, Sainsbury’s have replaced most of its human cashiers with automatic scan’n’pay machines. Having a train to catch in ten minutes, I nevertheless ignored the two staffers who urged me to use these machines instead of the lone person manning an old fashioned till, because I prefer to deal with humans wherever possible, and also on the possibly misplaced moral grounds that machines like these deny jobs to people who need them. Indeed it was instructive that it required two people to shepherd customers through the vexatious, time-consuming process of using the computerised facilities, although my principled stance meant waiting ages for a woman who’d apparently done her weekly shop to depart the sole humanly-helmed check-out.

So long, in fact, that I had to leave my sandwich in the rack of chocs and crisps in the checkout area and bugger off to catch my train muttering to myself that had all those three staff been working the tills, I might’ve not ended up lunchless. But I doubt Sainsbury’s management would give a toss as they’re obviously in the thrall of expensive technology that dispenses with troublesome human beings even if the customers might not like it. And as they’re in fact deliberately trying to limit or replace staff with machines, it also renders hollow the supermarkets’ claims about job creation when they’re bribing local councils to allow planning permission for new stores. And then…

My journey home involves changing trains at Newport from the amusingly named Inter-City 125 to a usually cramped, draughty bus-on-rails through some stunning Welsh countryside and last Friday, for reasons involving dentistry, I had to break my journey at Hereford whose gaunt, freezing station I later returned to only to learn that a freight train had broken down outside Abergavenny, thus for an indeterminate period blocking anything else from chuffing north. The dread phrase ‘replacement buses’ had been invoked but the admittedly helpful station staff knew not how long they’d be and having to run the local film society box office that night I couldn’t wait indefinitely: long story short, after 90 mins shivering wait I paid £30 to get to my car parked at the next station, but not before one of said staff admitted that broken down freight trains “are a regular bloody problem.”

A little light internet research, albeit involving many incomprehensible trainspotters’ bulletin boards, revealed that the goods train in question was pulled by a Type 47 diesel owned, like most of the UK’s rail freight business, by the German company, Schenker. The Type 47s were built in the 1960s and designed to last perhaps 30-35 years, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that they keep breaking down. But like America’s Northwest Airlines who, until they started falling out of the sky, continued flying a fleet of creaky old Boeing 727s produced in that same era in the belief that it was cheaper to endure escalating maintenance costs rather than buy newer ‘planes, no one at Schenker seems to’ve done a cost/benefit analysis of that. (Aviva Trains Wales, from whom I’m demanding a refund and taxi fare, probably wished they had). And of course if and when the penny finally drops, Schenker will probably buy replacement engines from a German company, not least because by then our last remaining (Canadian-owned) train builder will have gone bust.

These two admittedly unrelated events happened the same week that we learnt that lack of investment over the past 15 years means that our power stations, one of which the Schenker train was delivering coal to, must be de-commissioned well before enough coal-, gas- or nuclear-powered replacements have been built and the regulator, PowerGen, warned that prolonged black-outs can soon be expected.  And then…

I recently took a friend to see Rust & Bone at Belsize Park’s Everyman Cinema, one of a small chain that charges 50% more than the average flea-pit for the luxury of having over-priced drinks brought to your comfy sofa seats by girls called Clarissa. Having already seen the film in the course of my day job, I was surprised, then annoyed to find that the aspect ratio was all wrong and part of the image area was obscured by the curtains which evidently the projectionist hadn’t noticed. After complaining to the callow youth who purported to be the manager, I was told that (of course) there wasn’t a projectionist because the Everymans only use digital projectors and no-one there could do anything about it. And a phone call to an absent ‘technician’ at head-office yielded no remedy, either. So we walked out. (An angrier, more informed treatise on the death of the projectionist in the name of cost-cutting can be read in Mark Kermode’s excellent book, ‘The Good, The Bad… and The Multiplex’). I was going to cunningly use this cinematic debacle to segue into some movie and other cultural recommendations, but as I fear it might unduly test your patience, I’ll leave that ‘til next week .

Instead I’ll conclude from these recent misfortunes that cost/benefit analyses aside, our captains of industry and politicians can’t grasp that by putting people out of work – skilled or otherwise – who are not able to find jobs in the thrusting new industries we were told would be our economic salvation, they are de facto reducing the nation’s ability to well, buy stuff. And since buying stuff is supposed to be what it’s all about, then where does that leave us?

Make a biting comment, read previous scribbles or sign up to get ’em automatically via the right hand column

The Fallen Mighty January 21, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.
19 comments

Firstly and very belatedly, Happy New Year. Or if you live in Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali etc., Happy Bloody New Year. Actually, since our wonderful ‘festive season’ I’ve tried several times to pen a tirade, but each time I hit on a suitable subject, something even more terrifying or irritating came along and rendered it redundant. Now however…

I was leafing through November’s Prospect magazine and intrigued by her byline, started reading Hephizbah Anderson (I’m shortly changing my name to Hezbollah Williams) on the ‘Quantified Self’ movement, a bunch of narcissistic  über-geeks who track everything about themselves from how much they smile, shit and sleep to monitoring their blood sugar levels and reading habits using “wearable computer devices”. As Anderson pointed out, although the QSers may be obsessive about personal data capture, anyone with a smartphone has the ability to mine all manner of information about themselves and their circumstances. And then lo and behold the next issue of Prospect contained a whole feature on how Google (of course!) is working on devices that will blur the distinction “between our physical and virtual lives”. Point your iPhone at a restaurant and a ‘Wikitude’ app will reveal reviews of it, download the ‘Fits.me’ app and you can discover whether that saucy little chemise you’re contemplating on Net-a-Porter will both fit and suit you. (This is addressed to my transvestite readers, obviously).

Writing this as I am on George Orwell’s death-day, it’ll come as no surprise that I find this lamentable, especially because the instant availability of great gobbets of information also means that info can easily be manipulated for commercial and/or malign reasons. And returning to Anderson’s piece, even self-accumulated data – which is not necessarily the same as factual information, right? – can be used by data miners, or ‘pirates’ as I call them, to bombard you with sales pitches for anything that might improve your mood, bowel movements or sleep patterns etc., i.e. in much the same way as Google already picks up on the content of your emails, and Twatter your tweets (well not mine, obviously), Farceberk your cute snaps of little Johnny building a snowman and sell it to advertisers who then bombard you etc., etc. We may also become so enwrapped in our virtual or ‘enhanced’ realities that we are unable to distinguish it from the real one, indeed it may become the real one.

Of course as intelligent, self-disciplined individuals you ignore such puffery and dismiss any sinister implications concerning the technology that facilitates it, but I reckon that within a few years you’ll have been brainwashed into surrender, much like the citizens of Orwell’s dystopia. I smelt the reasons for this last week, the day after HMV went into administration and finding myself in the glittering metropolis, I visited its flagship Oxford Street store and witnessed a very sad sight indeed. The place was rammed, largely with badly-dressed men of a certain vinyl buying age (e.g. yrs. trly.), riffling through the racks of now heavily discounted CDs for bargains. Indeed I came away with fifty-quid’s worth of stuff I really, really needed driven, I admit, by a subconscious fear that this truly marked the end of an era when music could be bought in physical form, at least somewhere other than online via mega tax-avoiders, Amazon.

It was, of course, the same week that Comet and Blockbuster also went bust which, quite apart from making thousands jobless and causing glee at Amazon HQ, prompted sage comment in the financial press that this was the inevitable outcome of a failure to recognise and thence adapt to the threat of online retailing (and in HMV’s and Blockbuster’s case, downloading and streaming). Quite how anyone, even the mighty HMV could match Amazon or Apple in flogging cut-price music wasn’t discussed, but some commented, albeit without actual approval, that all this was merely capitalism’s tectonic plates making one of their periodic shifts, just like when film gave way to digital and Tesco et al decimated the independent grocery trade. And that may be true, and we may just have to get used to the fact that consumer choice will be dictated by fewer and fewer mega-corps, many of whom, well Amazon anyway, who’ll rely on another largely privately owned mega-corp we once called the Royal Mail to deliver its goods.

I’m currently reading Mark Kermode’s entertaining treatise on what ails the movie and cinema industry, ‘The Good, The Bad & The Multiplex’ which my sister, who is deeply involved in both, refused to read because Kermode is a critic and “never trust a critic”, but he, too, acknowledges that cinema must adapt if it’s to provide a persuasive alternative to 60inch home cinema set-ups, Netflix and LoveFilm (prop. Amazon), because the film-makers by-and-large don’t care how they flog their wares, just as long as they do. Multiplex traffic is in steadily decline, whilst my sisters’ indie flea-pits do well because they offer a wider variety of fare and a viewing environment not staffed by glorified popcorn peddlers who know and care nowt about films, but the writing could well be on the wall even for her operation, just as it must be for our last remaining bookshop chain, Waterstones (see my last outing).

And to return to where I started, that is partly because the web, cloud computing (which an ad. in this week’s New Yorker claims “will solve the world’s greatest challenges” !!!!!) and most insidiously of all, applications and the miniaturised personal devices that run them will soon be able to deliver direct into our line of vision, and eventually I guess our subconsciouses, exactly what the few mega-corps who own them want them to… Especially when there’s no HMV, Comet or Waterstones left where we can inspect the goods, and indeed the alternatives, in real time… even before going home and buying them online for a few pence less!

Please comment, read previous rants or subscribe to get ’em automatically via the right hand column

Double Booked. And This Time It’s Personal. December 9, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing.
22 comments

Once again I find myself repeating myself, or at least returning to a rant only just posted, but being of an obsessive nature, I just damn well will. (Reminds me of a sign in a Parisian shop a fortnight ago: ‘Okay, I’m addicted to shoes – so what?’). So there I was browsing my local Waterstones, seeking selfish reward after a particularly harrowing dental appointment on Friday and, as anyone frequenting Britain’s sole remaining bookstore chain recently now knows, you can’t get through their doors without tripping over a table full of Kindles. Usually I ignore them, but this time some 12 year-old (© Ed Reardon) actually accosted me and asked if I’d “thought about” buying one.

“Yes,” I replied with all the snottiness you’d expect, “and my thought was ‘not in a million years.’” Not exactly a scintillating response, but as I took my ‘Buy One – Get Another Half Price’ volumes to the dreadlocked Assistant Manager (as his badge so helpfully explained) at the till, I managed something chunkier. “Tell me, “ I asked, handing over my Waterstones loyalty card (yes, I’m that sad), “what’ll happen when you’ve sold all your customers a Kindle… apart,” I added with a triumphant sneer, “from making lots of money for Amazon who won’t pay tax on it?”

Somewhere between sheepish and confused – hadn’t his boss James ‘Turncoat’ Daunt, anticipated his staff being asked this? – he haltingly, if not bitterly replied, “Well I supposed we’ll become a Kindle accessory shop?” Unsure if he was actually being facetious, I parried, “Well then you won’t need all this space will you, or all these staff?”

As it happened, a punter waiting behind me piped up, “But at least it’ll keep people reading, and they’re so much more convenient than books.” I looked round and saw her blanching slightly, perhaps as the import of her words sunk in. Readying her debit card to pay for Hilary Mantel’s latest, this well-groomed, interesting-looking woman of a certain age was perhaps echoing the conclusion drawn in my last blog, inasmuch that digital media is just symptomatic of technology’s inevitable progress, and as bookshops, printers, paper mills, warehouses and all their staff disappear like the quill and the Gutenberg press, society will adjust. Although in this case perhaps just to one or two companies – Amazon? Google? – profiting from and controlling everything we consume.

Which brings me neatly to another regular beef: the changing nature of human communications. I’m actually writing this during the day-long ‘technical rehearsals’ for our town panto, which despite the fluffed lines, wrongly-keyed songs and mis-timed entrances is a terrifically convivial affair and one of the small joys of living in a real community. And afterwards, suitably exhausted and moderately elated, some of us will doubtless repair to the pub, perhaps even staying on ‘til the pub quiz at 9.30.

I’ve actually had some of my best times of my life in pubs and bars, especially this one which luckily is at the end of my road. However I have many friends who never go to pubs at all. And yes, the booze costs thrice as much as at Aldi and if you live in the sticks driving home is risky, but like bookshops (and butchers and bakers), they’re disappearing fast and with them an entire facility for social contact. And how often do you simply phone up your mates for a chat these days? Nah, now it’s Twatter and FarceBerk that evidently sustain us socially and when I sometimes do call someone up for no particular reason, they are usually surprised and sometimes lost for conversation.

But I know people who use FarceBerk on a daily basis to broadcast their little miseries and triumphs (‘Here’s baby Mandy eating her first porridge’), or alert their chums to an hilarious video of a dog farting.  To mention this sounds pejorative and churlish, but like bemoaning the imminent death of the book, it’s a lament for a time when our relationships were more tactile and you could understand so much better how your friends, family and lovers were really feeling across a pub table, or even at the end of a telephone receiver. Okay, there’s Skype, but cowering awkwardly over our keyboards, Skype chats are viewed in blurry, staccato images reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s ‘50s and ‘60s stop-motion film animation… i.e. very distracting.

I know I’m riding high on my extremely hypocritical horse here, because I also occasionally delve into FarceBerk, albeit mainly to flog my blog, I use email several times a day, and I’ve been hopelessly flattered by those I respect into joining online business communities such as LinkedIn and Plaxo, naïvely believing it’d help my so-called career, but all they seem to do is encourage members to boast how clever and successful they are and/or spew out acronyms I neither am able nor really want to understand to voice anodyne opinions about the wonderfulness of digital media.

Where will it end? Will human interaction become limited almost entirely to the digital short-form and if so, what will it mean for the depth and diversity of imagination, emotions and intellectual rigour? As ever, I’m keen to hear your views, Orwellian or otherwise. Full of seasonal cheer, that’s me.

Please comment, read previous blogs, sign up to get ’em automatically or link to fellow bloggers by checking the right hand column

Breaking Wind, If Not Silence November 6, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
Tags: , ,
30 comments

Since my last rant some seven weeks ago, I’ve had a few stabs at composing another but to no avail, obviously.

I don’t know about yours, but I find that in these blighted times and especially if you’re of a certain age and culture, life is an endless tide of disappointment, failure and betrayal relieved only by brief and increasingly infrequent examples of spiritual generosity and soul-stirring creative venture. As such, there isn’t much worth writing about that isn’t just more of the rut-ploughing whining I’ve been doing for years now.

So on the cusp of a right-wing, tax-avoiding, women-hating religious zealot probably becoming Master of the Universe and then bombing Iran, out-sourcing even more jobs to the Far East and ending his female subjects’ right to choose an abortion, I fear we are all in the same bloody boat. But one thing I can be sure of and is perhaps worth noting is that Trouble Rides a Fast Horse.

Which is all you need to know.

And if you can bear to read more of the same, albeit at greater length, check out the column on the right