jump to navigation

BACK FROM THE (LIVING) DEAD September 3, 2017

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

It’s been three years since I last penned one of these blogs, something anyone who’s still with me may recall I abandoned because I’d finally realised that it was a bit of an arrogance to assume that anyone would be interested in my pontifications. And on top of that there was also the rather less worthy realisation that I was running out of steam…

Well the steam has sort of returned, if only because after a strange but not unrewarding few years and a couple of false starts (which included nearly launching a custom ‘bike which simply had too much online competition, and failing to get the editorship of a ‘bike mag I wrote for, probably ’cause I’m too old and too bolshy), I’m launching another magazine – the same one I threatened to unleash three years ago!  In fact it’s the ninth title I’ve thrown at an unsuspecting world in a what I laughingly call my 45-odd (very odd) year publishing career, albeit some 26 years after Frank Westworth and I launched the amusingly-named but ill-fated Jalopy. And Frank and Jalopy now have a certain spooky resonance because my new periodical is also aimed at drivers (rather than riders, as most of the others were), and Frank’s writing for it. It’s called The Classic Motoring Review (CMR) and flying in the face of reason in this wilfully digital age, it’s a print magazine, and only available on subscription.

Cover front 170815 copy

I won’t blether on too much about CMR because if you’re remotely interested you can check out the website, www.classicmotoringreview.uk but I will just observe that the idea behind it is that car buffs of a certain age and inclination do, I believe, still like to hold magazines and newspapers in their hands and have attention spans not denuded to a few hundred words by a young lifetime of being glued to their smartphones. So CMR has long articles, averaging about 3000 words, by some of the motoring writers I’ve admired literally since my youth, including Steve Cropley, my ex-Melody Maker editor Richard Williams, Douglas Blain (who as Car‘s editor in 1971 helped shepherd Bike into existence), the late Leonard Setright and yes, good old Frank Westworth.

Mentioning the estimable if eccentric Setright affirms that CMR will publish great writing that’s appeared in books and magazines, often from decades ago, which will help set its literary tone. And something else that setting it apart from mainstream classic car magazines is that there won’t be any adverts or glossy photographs. Yes, it will be all about the writing, although publishing CMR is giving me an opportunity to commission some wonderful illustrations and paintings from some of my long-standing artist friends including Mikki Rain, Philip Hood and John James.

However rewarding this editorial process has been, I must admit it was overshadowed, and not in a good way, by the monumental and grossly time-consuming frustration of creating a website to market CMR and its subscriptions. I trusted the building of the site to a suitably web-savvy friend, but the obstacles  to getting it to do what I need, and especially the vital e-commerce elements, have taken many weeks and driven me crazy. The lesson learnt here is that inky old farts like me who still believe in the power of print need to choose their internet options very, very carefully and be prepared to pay accordingly. The print media mindset is almost anathema to digital fluency.

As it is, producing 47,000 subscription leaflets which are being distributed  in other mags, club journals, books and simply stuck under windscreen wipers at classic car events was a breeze compared to my onerous online antics. And it’s perhaps telling that coupons from the leaflets, accompanied by old fashioned cheques, account for two out of every six subscriptions thus far received.

But I’ve still got a long way to go to break even, so I shall shamelessly invite you to spread the word to anyone (or any website) you think might be interested in reading about motoring’s classic heydays.  Because I really don’t think they’ll be disappointed when The Classic Motoring Review appears in early October – which’ll be my one last throw of the publishing dice before I finally pop my clogs.

 

 

Advertisements

PUBLISHING FOLLY AHEAD: HELP WANTED June 12, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Media.
25 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

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO CAMERON DIAZ November 8, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Navel Gazing.
16 comments

In The Counsellor, a violent but not unappealing drug trafficking thriller due out later this month, Cameron Diaz’s deliciously villainous character spouts a lengthy homily about change, its inevitability and the smart person’s decision not to fight it. Obviously I am not a smart person because Canute-like, I constantly resist change. I was also reminded of the foolishness of this when visiting the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, for although in his day (1879-1940) Klee was a serious thinker and teacher about matters artistic, on the evidence of this rather disappointing show he failed to put his thoughts into action, or rather onto canvas. Which in failing to put most of my own stridently voiced opinions into practice, I am also a craven hypocrite.

And it is of course this untypically honest admission that partly accounts for the hiatus in blogging which I whined about six weeks ago, although then I cited the irrelevance of one man’s views in a world where better brains than I have bigger and better fora to disseminate them and the usually despicable acts of mankind that prompt them. So whilst I still advocate Private Eye, The New Yorker and even Prospect if you really want to know about mankind’s horrors and follies, I was moved by Ms Diaz’s, or rather scriptwriter Cormac McCarthy’s observations to re-consider my position on a few matters that had recently vexed me.

HS2   The current political wrangling over the proposed £42billion north-south trainline is characterised by the opposing sides constantly issuing contradictory reports on its viability, cost and disruptive elements. My view is that it’d be a disaster, especially for the citizens of north London whose properties and lives would be blighted for a decade whilst it was built (I spend a lot of time in north London, see), and as a regular traveler on a creaking east-west train service to and from and my Welsh home, I’d far rather see the money used upgrading existing rail routes. But because so much political capital depends on HS2 going ahead, it almost certainly will. Just as it almost certainly will be beset by cost overruns and delays and do nothing for the economies of northern England that are its supposed beneficiaries.

MEDIA & BOOKS   The recent sacking of its arts critics by The Independent and the steady cull of journalists by the Telegraph, Times and Guardian confirm that mass print media is doomed. Ditto the ongoing closure of independent bookshops due to the increase in sales of digital readers with Amazon, the arch-villains of the piece, rubbing salt into the wound with a series of ads showing an ugly man smiling at his Kindle in front of a pile of discarded books. A recent report that children, often encouraged by parents desperate to keep them occupied, just don’t have the attention spans to read anything other than digitized gobbets of information confirms that the printed word is doomed. And with it, probably anyway, the power of the press to challenge authority and commerce to account for their myriad venality. So I’d better get used to that, too. But a bracing if surprising counterpoint came from Murdoch’s News UK paywall-loving boss, Mike Darcey, in the latest In Publishing (print edition, natch): “Papers like The Guardian are eating themselves alive by publishing a newspaper at £1.40 and then giving all the content away for free.” Precisely.

CAR TROUBLE    A rare case of contrition now regarding my unfashionable romance with the internal combustion engine. I got it wrong with the Twingo I irrationally bought in August (because I liked its cheeky looks and supposed economy), and am having doubts about both selling my Lancia Gamma and my continuing ownership of the gorgeous technological marvel/nightmare that is my Citroen XM. Since acquiring it, the Twingo has needed a replacement driveshaft and cambelt, both nightmarish to source because it was never an UK import and Renault UK can’t or won’t identify relevant parts numbers. Ergo many frustrating hours spent badgering confused and irritated friends/mechanics/axe-murderers for help. The Citruin has developed a leak from I know not where, probably because I stupidly let a garage who didn’t know XMs service it instead of doing it myself. And winter’s coming and its bum’s getting rusty. Until I bought the XM, I maintained that one’s ‘daily driver’ should cost no more than £1000 and deliver at least two and usually three year’s virtually trouble-free motoring, after which I’d flog it for a few hundred less than it cost and move onto another cheaply insurable old banger, arrogantly assuming that I knew enough to do rudimentary maintenance and avoid buying a dog. Oh, and I’d keep and cherish a classic for high days and showing off. The XM, glorious to drive though it is, proved the exception in every respect, but I thought I’d box clever by replacing the Lancia with it as my object of automotive lust and make the Twingo my daily driver. Wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong. And worse, when I occasionally drive a modern BMW or, gulp, Ford, I kinda hanker after transport that’s quiet, reliable and economical… even if it has no soul.

TALKING OF SOUL    All of this unrequited resistance to the march of progress has this month been ameliorated by some determined cultural consumption, but as your attention span has probably already been stretched to its limits, the details of which I’ll peddle around early next week in a unexpectedly prompt second instalment.

Check out previous blogs and/or subscribe to get ’em automatically via the column on the right

Still Scribbling (Just About) September 2, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
29 comments

There have, it seems, been 85 of the suckers over the past few years, and almost uniformly bleating about some social injustice, media travesty, political inertia and/or conspiracy blah-blah-blah. My last blog in fact exhorted my reader to simply buy Private Eye whose muck-raking activities are far, far more assiduous, wide-ranging and comprehensive than a lone scribbler’s could ever be, and that remains my position. And in a world increasingly run by giant corporations and their poodle governments, the potential for protest to have much effect is limited. Which is why I haven’t published another one for months and likely won’t do for many more.

Indeed I think it’s fair to say in the world we now blindly struggle through, my generation really had the best of it and I pity the poor blighters following in our wake.

But just for the record, these are the subjects that have me wringing my hands most often and most intensely : Mick Farren’s death; Google; Amazon; virtually all politicians; Syria; fracking; HS2; global energy policies; most electronic media; banks and bankers; my personal finances; human behavior in the digital age; Afghanistan; celebrity culture; finding a garage who can competently tend my Citroen XM. It’s never bloody ending.

And since this will be probably be my last scrawl for ages, I’ll try and counterbalance that litany of despair with a brief list of things that have made life bearable:

DAVID BYRNE and St Valentine at the Roundhouse: 8-piece brass section, quirky if borderline irritating guitarist/chanteuse Annie Clark and Byrne’s magnificent songs. Truly uplifting.

MOVIE BINGEING: Seeing up to seven a week courtesy of my gig with the Picturehouse chain. Yes, there’s dross a’plenty, but some gems too, recently including What Maisie Knew, Closed Circuit, Cold Comes The Night, All Is Lost, Gloria, The Great Beauty, Enough Said, Blue Jasmine and Nebraska… all out now or in the next two months, and all to be savoured before online streaming and home cinema finally kill off real cinema (and I’m out of a gig, again!).

Beefheart Illustration

‘Outsider Artist’ Joe Coleman’s homage to the Mighty Captain

ART: a now not-so-recent trip to Paris revealed some unexpected gems, including Hey! Modern Art & Pop Culture at the wonderfully whacky Hailles St Pierre (a sort of mini-Roundhouse) featuring ‘outsider artists’ from the 70s onwards, including the Clayton Brothers, the biker druggie Joe Coleman, Erik Joyner and dozens more.  Hey! is also an occasional, beautifully produced mag-book worth €19 of anyone’s money whose interested in truly innovative creative mavericks that make the Damien Hirsts, Chapman Bros. and Tracey Emins of this world look like the cynical, minimally talented hucksters that they are.

And the Chagall exhibition, mostly of his bitingly critical anti-war works at the Musee du Luxembourg was moving in a different way.

But most impressive was a trip to the Musee des Artes et Metiers. I was making my third visit there in the vain hope that I might finally work my way through its enormous collection of technical, industrial, consumer, automotive and architectural design exhibits (I failed) when for light relief wandered into the temporary Enki Bilal show. He’s little known (to me) Serbian-born comic book artist and writer – a master draughtsman and fantasist with an agreeably perverse view of the (nether) world, but he’s also made several feature films, unshown in the UK, which despite massively limited resources and zero CGI are incredibly dramatic and graphically imaginative. This I know only because he’d spliced together a riveting and often hilarious assemblage that played on a constant 15 minute loop.

What all the hip Parisian  despatch riders are using these days

What all the hip Parisian despatch riders are using these days

Amazingly, given their no-budget origins, Bilal managed to persuade star names to appear in them, such as Julie Delpy and Michel Piccoli (Tykho Moon), Frederic Pierrot and Charlotte Rampling (the deeply weird Ad Vitam a/k/a ‘Immortal’) and Jean-Louis Trintignant and Maria Schneider (Bunker Palace Hotel). Bilal’s films are available, if hard to track down, on DVD but I recommend that you do. (I also got to bestride Prosper Keating’s meticulously maintained Velocette KSS whilst in Paris, but that was art as ancient engineering).

Lichtenstein at Tate Modern is long over of course, but it’s still zinging around in my head, and the Salgardo photos at the Natural History Museum are pretty damn incredible.

THEATRE: The revival of Gorky’s Children of the Sun at the NT was a timely reminder of the perils of political expediency, thrillingly staged and performed, ditto Chimerica at the Almeida – since transferred to the West End  – which boldly addressed the growing power of China and waning influence of America. More conventional but no less caustic was Noël Coward’s supercharged comedy of upper-class manners, Private Lives at the Gielgud.

MEDIA: Apart from the aforementioned Private Eye, The New Yorker continues to be the source of much pleasure and instructive intelligence. Long, beautifully written articles on subjects as diverse as Louisiana tugboat dynasties, Tibetan politics and the exploitation of African mineral resources by shadowy Israeli industrialists, plus the best film reviewers in the world bar none make the £100+ annual subscription worthwhile… even if, with hideous inevitability, its publishers are trying to migrate us online.

And so finally of course we come to Renault Twingos: I’ve always fancied these cheeky wee-but- roomy French hatchbacks since riding around in a colleague’s during my frequent business trips to Paris in the mid-90s, and having been obliged to sell my beloved Lancia Gamma, I spent some of the proceeds on what is now probably the only one in mid-Wales.

The future is Twingo, at least when I can't afford to fill up the Citruin XM

The future is Twingo, at least when I can’t afford to fill up the Citruin XM

Certainly the only one in metallic gold with a full length sun-roof. What larks… almost as much fun in fact as riding a Honda CBX around in what for once has been a fabbo summer.

The Eyes Have It May 16, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.
6 comments

It’s been a good six weeks since I last spewed forth, or rather a pretty bad six weeks if you’re a miserable old doomsayer. Not that there haven’t been a fine moments, the highlight being a high-speed dash across Wales and the Midlands with my friend M aboard a new Honda CB1100 and the latest Triumph Bonneville. We swopped bikes enough both during and the day before to share the conclusion that by a small margin the Trumpet was in fact the better all-rounder, so for once British was best… well British built from numerous Chinese and Italian bits. But the joy of it was just being able to belt along hour after hour at improbably high speeds on lightly trafficked, sun-dappled roads… something I haven’t done in duet for many a year.

Since then I’ve yet again been struggling to come up with something fresh to blog about and yet again each time some news item or personal experience prompts the requisite degree of righteous indignation, before I can find time to sit down and scribble – which frankly is difficult enough at the moment – some further outrage emerges, and so on and so on. For the moment then, I’m stymied… which may come as a relief in certain quarters. But if anyone still needs to feel livid about the state we’re in, then I can do no better than commend you to Private Eye which six decades on is still, in fact probably now even better at muck-raking than when it began in the ‘60s .

Whether it be murky arms deals supporting murderous dictatorships, local government incompetence, ongoing banking malfeasance, officially sanctioned pollution, venal commercial interests on both a national and global scale and most of all the corruption and  gob-smacking stupidity that goes on at every level of politics, the Eye still delivers the goods in pithy, well researched gobbets which no longer seem to attract the libel writs and legal censure they once did… surely proving that most of what they print is true. (And it will be fascinating to see what the consequences are of the major report in the current issue on what “made Britain the capital of global corporate crime”… although see below).

The downside of this of course is that the perpetrators of what ultimately harms and impoverishes us no longer care much about getting caught – look at Chris Hune and his pathetic attempts to cover up a speeding offence. Neither do the Primarks and H & Ms of this world who pride themselves on flogging ultra-cheap, rubbishy clothing produced by near-slave labour in shoddily-built third world factories which, when they collapse and kill hundreds of their workers certainly don’t prompt boycotts on the High Street. We have, I believe, become so inured to the dishonesty and rampant self-interest displayed on a constant basis by those who should be setting the unimpeachable standards of morality and fair-play that we should aspire to – whether they be politicians, business leaders or so-called respected media figures – that we’ve become just as cynical as them.

And that is a cause of great despair and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that in a somehow justifiable way encourages all but the very, very brave, and possibly Private Eye journalists to pursue the same hang-the-consequences solipsism as our so-called role models.  Meanwhile the national media is busily abandoning investigative reporting in favour of the mindless celebrity bollocks that they mistakenly think will save them from further ruin.

But despair doesn’t really make for good journalism, and certainly not good bloggery.

Please leave a comment, check out previous blogs or sign up to get ’em automatically via the right hand panel

Dubious in Dubai March 18, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.
16 comments
1909 Stag at Sharkey's oil on canvas 92.1 x 122.6 cm

An early Bellows’ work of an illegal NYC boxing bout

Before I get into my brief, gob-smacking trip to Dubai, there’s some unfinished business following the catalogue of cultural recommendations which I unilaterally chose to excrete into the ether last week. Misgivings abound about this, but is it any worse than zillions of my peers’ FarceBerk postings concerning the cute antics of kittens, kids and inebriated colleagues ? Erm, probably.

Anyroad up, there was no room to mention a few exhibitions that have thrilled and delighted recently, and even if you live miles away and/or are ambivalent about art, if you go to only one show this year, make it George Bellows at the Royal Academy. Hitherto unknown to me, in his short life Bellows produced a vast body of work in ever-changing styles (think Lowry, Hopper, Rocker, Nicholson etc) including visceral depictions of illegal boxing bouts in his native turn of the century New York to seascapes to rather formal society portraits but with twists that mirrored his hero Manet at that painter’s maverick best. It’s only a small exhibition in the Sackler Wing but there are some hugely moving works there, including some WW1 reflections that are equaled only by Picasso’s Guernica in their stark, powerful anger.

And talking of Manet, the RA currently has a bigger exhibition of his work, although the numerous deliberately unfinished paintings rather reduced my admiration for him even though his observational eye and subtle use of colour cannot be undervalued. And talking of Picasso, there’s another smallish show of his early work at the Courtauld Gallery which of you’re a Picasso completest (which I am) shouldn’t be missed. Finally in more modern vein the Light Show at the Hayward is worth seeing if only for Anthony McCall’s misty, atmospheric projections and a few pieces by Dan Flavin (who had a literally dazzling solus show there in 2006).  I haven’t yet seen the Lichtenstein at Tate Modern but as someone who sparked my enthusiasm for modern art back in the ‘60s, I’m slavering in anticipation.

And as a postscript to my list of recently consumed literature, I forgot to mention Susie Boyt’s compelling, beautifully wrought new-ish novel, The Small Hours about a plucky, if troubled idealist who in setting up a private school is obliged to confront many of her personal demons.

2013-03-07 05.31.56

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower – the world’s tallest, obviously

Now Dubai. I’ve been telling everyone that this obscenely rich Emerati state evoked for me the Blade Runner cityscape, but transposed to the desert. The place is awash with skyscrapers, many of which line six lane highways behind which there’s little but desert scrub. Weird. However from the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, even these towering edifices look like bungalows. Unfettered by planning requirements, although some of the architecture is aesthetically questionable, some of it is breathtakingly impressive, especially the buildings incongruously lining the Dubai Creek where traditional dhows load cargoes traded along the Gulf and beyond.

And just in front of the Khalifa there was a huge display of classic cars, all restored within an inch of their lives – mainly big fuck-off Bentleys, Caddies and of course the obligatory Ferraris – because thanks to the talented artisans who’ve emigrated from India and further east, Dubai is a centre for cheap, high-quality restoration work.

This of course raises the ugly issue of immigrant labour without which Dubai couldn’t exist. Living in cramped and inhospitable dormitory suburbs, legions of building and menial service workers spend 50 weeks of their year creating the superstructures and maintaining the lifestyles of the copious ex-pats (some 80% of the 2million population) who’ve made their homes there due to the lack of income tax and a shamelessly retail-driven culture.

Visiting the (in)famous ‘Palm Jumeirah’ estate artificially stretching out into the Gulf felt rather like being in The Truman Show, and then rising surreally out of the shimmering desert, there’s the world’s largest shopping mall, and its largest indoor ski slope… All this said, Dubai’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is an apparently canny fellow who seeks to undermine any risk of Islamic (or other) revolution by ensuring all his native subjects are well looked after and regularly turns up unannounced, often driving his own Mercedes G-Wagen, to cultural and other events, such as the poetry evening I attended in a desert encampment where he stayed for a good, er, 20 minutes.

2013-03-07 06.18.34

And the view from the Burj Khalifa

I gather that the Sheik and his family, a/k/a ‘the government’, are tolerant of the many Taliban big-wigs, international criminals and other despots who’ve put their money into Dubai just as long as they cause no trouble or incur debt, in which case they’re out on their ears. Another consequence of his financial strictures was the horde of expensive cars left at the airport, gloveboxes full of maxed-out credit cards, after 2008’s financial crash when their suddenly debt-ridden owners had to flee. And the cars, now covered in sand, are still there…

I spent my final evening with a lively group of young lawyers, digital entrepreneurs  and media-types from China, the Antipodes and Europe who’d made the place their home and who provided sharp insights into Dubai’s still escalating prosperity despite  its lack of oil: it’s become the financial hub of the Arab world, even more so now its troubled neighbours needs somewhere secure to store their capital. But not one of them expected to live there beyond a few more years, and hot, hospitable and intriguingly bizarre though it was, I doubt I could’ve stayed there even a few more weeks.

One final, bleakly instructive thought on where we’re heading economically is prompted by this link (for which I must thank Dick Pountain). How sustainable, I wonder, is a world where such financial inequality continues to exist and indeed, grows?

http://youtu.be/QPKKQnijnsM

Please make an acerbic comment, check out previous scrawls or sign-up to get ’em automatically via the right hand 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

I Am Barbara Cartland’s Love-Child September 16, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Media, Navel Gazing.
46 comments

It’s not often I claim anything in common with the late Barbara Cartland, but right now I’m writing this in bed… albeit not wearing a pink nightie. This is because having just had eleven teeth removed at one go, I’m drugged close to the eyeballs with industrial-strength painkillers: something else, judging by the rubbish she wrote, I suspect Ms Cartland was also partial to. And the reason for that is that they all had to be extracted in one hit so’s I could immediately start wearing a pair of  horrid if temporary dentures.

This modest revelation is not, I promise you, a prelude to an outburst of self-pity, but rather to a broader treatise on aging… although perhaps that’s almost as bad. Almost as bad, in fact, as the Observer’s price rise this week, but more on that later.

The problem with teeth is part of the problem with aging, inasmuch as like the rest of one’s mind and body, they wear out. Unkind voices have suggested that all the cocaine and speed I took in a past life accelerated my dental decline, but be that as it may, the deterioration of one’s molars is but one of many symptoms we baby-boomers must apparently suffer, sooner or later. Hair-, hearing-, sight-, stamina- and memory-loss, thickening girth, wrinkled faces and flabby limbs are some more of the almost common ones, others such as calcified joints, poisoned livers, loss of muscle tissue and libido, plus of course the Big ‘C’ being less widespread but more serious.

As a reasonably vain man, I try to stave off such deteriorations as I can reasonably afford, so I go to the gym, watch what I eat, avoid alcohol a couple of days a week and so on, but I clearly didn’t look after my teeth carefully enough and when various bridges and crowns collapsed earlier this year I was somehow rather shocked. Moreover after 18 months on an NHS waiting list, I wasn’t best pleased to be told that unless I went private, the best the state could do would be to hoik most of them out and provide me with acrylic dentures for the rest of my days. The thought of plonking a set of false teeth into a glass of Steradent each night after passionate sex with my 24 year-old love goddess frankly appalled me, so with the rigour typical of an aging hypochondriac, I investigated implants and even paid for consultations with specialist clinics both here and in Hungary (where life, and dentistry, are cheaper).  But even when you tot up the cost of airfares, hotels and the lonely nights of painful recovery doing it abroad, I was looking at the price of a brand new Mini to get my mouth looking and working good again. Plus various friends in the know recounted lurid tales of surgery gone wrong and implants having to be removed from infected gums.

Although I won’t elaborate here, my solution was a halfway house between conventional falsies and implants, but the overarching point I want to make is that NO-ONE PREPARES YOU FOR THIS SORT OF THING. Just as kids today aren’t taught how to cook, manage their finances or, it seems, read and write, we weren’t trained how to deal with middle-age. I dunno about you, but with the exception of drug abuse, I still think and try to behave pretty much as I did in my 20s. I still have poor impulse control, still want to dance and drink late into the night, still like fast cars and motorcycles, still like s-e-x, still dress to impress even if it’s only for myself etc., etc. And if I could afford a hair transplant as well as the dental work, I’d do that too.

Is this growing old paranoidly (a word I just invented), embarrassingly or disgracefully? Or should I and my peers, most of whom seem to act to varying degrees as I do, behave more in line with the generation in front of us, swaddled in beige, slowly driving sensible Toyotas, joining the bowling club, shuffling round town with our Zimmers and doting on grandchildren with a passion that transcends our own intellectual and cultural curiosity? Sooner or later we are all going to peg it, but these next couple of decades are uncharted territory for the likes of us who cut our teeth (sic) in the laissez-faire late ‘60s and a lot of us don’t have a nice pension to cushion the blow. Any suggestions?

And talking of pegging it, today’s Observer has just raised its price from £2.20 to £2.50, a hike justified in a pious little editorial by claiming “it is the only way we can hope to continue to invest in the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper… (and provide) excellence in journalism.” This excellence is doubtless exemplified by page three’s main story about a British businesswoman setting up an “erotic website as an antidote to hardcore sexual imagery” and a double-page spread on London’s “opera wars” between Verdi and Wagner (yawn). But worse still is the Observer Magazine which is now little more than a unctuous showcase for expensive fripperies, fancy food and C-list thesps no-one cares a damn about. If the Observer ditched their magazine, had the balls to drop its price by 50% and put some backbone into their editorial offering my guess is that circulation and thence ad. revenues would rise significantly. But we all know that like its Guardian sibling, their management myopically believe that getting everyone, including their core 45-60 year-old readership, to shell out for an iPad and access it online will be their salvation, no matter how much their thus far failed attempts to do so, and make money out of it, costs them.

So the Observer now costs more than having my copy of the New Yorker air-mailed to me each week, which is beautifully written, far more interesting and arguably news-worthy. But then it’s aimed pretty much at middle-aged readers who want to, and still can, really get their teeth into something.

Make a withering comment, check out previous blogs or subscribe to get ’em automatically via the right-hand column

Crumb of Comfort May 28, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, That's Entertainment.
12 comments

Grappling for the relevance or otherwise of yet another unasked for rhetoric-fest, never mind its subject matter, the best I could come up with were a few odds and sods. Still, as the highly sexualised secretary in Thomas McGuane’s latest novel exclaims after an unexpected bout of jiggery-pokery with his adolescent hero, at least it’s been “never a dull moment” since I last spewed forth. So, some random incidents, observations and travelogues…

Went to Paris last week to do some art and socialising and art apart, it’s so refreshing to visit a city that’s still motorcycle friendly: park on the pavement, ride like the devil in jeans and  t-shirt, make as much noise as you like. And plenty of girls at it, too. Great. As for the exhibs, well the Degas Nudes at the D’Orsay weren’t entirely my cuppa, but you gotta admire his draughtsmanship when the chips are down, even more so Matisse at the Pompidou which was far more impressive, especially the photographically rendered revelation that he executed dozens of versions of what he had in mind before reaching his conclusion. Spent some time at the Pomp’s permanent collection which includes some fantastic stuff, especially your Cubists, your Fauvists and your Post-Modernists, although as you traipsed through the rooms the combinations seemed to get barmier and barmier.

But the hit and main purpose of the trip was the Robert Crumb retrospective at the Musee d’Art Moderne. If you don’t know Crumb, then shame on you for he was the pre-eminent American underground comic artist of the 1960s and ‘70s whose wry exaggerations perfectly skewered the cultural conceits of those times. Having lived in their country for the past 20 years, the French have done him justice with a massive assemblage of original comic strip artwork, illustrations and indeed influences which was a true delight.

Robert Crumb woos the girl of his dreams

All his great creations were here, Mr Natural, Honeybunch Kominsky, Fritz the Cat etc., plus his entire cartoon version of the Book of Genesis published in 2009 and four years in the drawing. My only crit of a show that needed a good two hours to absorb is that the latter, a masterpiece of graphic exposition, was last on the menu by which time and despite its greatness, I was too arted-out to clock every page.

After a restorative pot of tea overlooking the Seine and Eiffel Tower – it’s a great gallery in a great location – I explored some of its permanent works which, like the Pompidou’s, were pretty impressive if somewhat arbitrarily hung. Then the return Eurostar broke down just before the chunnel eventually, and after an infuriating confusion of announcements and silences, going backwards to Lille to be shoved onto a spare for the journey home three hours later. However as compensation we were offered a free return ticket anytime in the next year: not a bad trade-off, especially as having just concluded that if you ain’t got kids or a high maintenance spouse, and thankfully I have neither, then art is the most important thing in life. And so I’m going to go and study art history in Paris, for which the gratis Eurotart tickets are a good start.

Or at least that’s what I was thinking for the final 24 hours of my visit and the first 24 after I got home. Now… well maybe not. Art is incredibly important, though, and back-to-back gallery hopping among the greats like this reminds you how transformative and uplifting it can be. It certainly, and here I should issue an Arty Bollocks Alert, consolidates the certainties that so much else in this vale of tears™ lacks. Attachments to people you’ve known for decades, or even just met, are almost as important, but they can evaporate upon an emotional whim, or a motorway pile-up, leaving you bewildered and distraught, but great art is always there.

Trouble is, I can neither paint nor sculpt and can barely string together a few words, and I think I’m a bit too old to give it all up and live in a Parisian garret whilst I try to make sense of it all for no other purpose than, well, to make sense of it all. And in the ongoing absence of any income, I think some hideously expensive dental work is a rather more pressing need.

As for writing, well I took along the new McGuane novel which, as it somewhat shockingly hasn’t found a U.K. publisher, I rather sheepishly bought online, though not I hasten to add, from Amazon.

So back to McGuane, who is for my money arguably the best living novelist, and certainly along with Richard Ford – who is published here – the best American. In a gently sardonic sentence McGuane can say more about the emotional contraptions we erect for ourselves than many writers can in a chapter or indeed, a blog, and end it with a comic punch that’ll have you laughing out loud. His writing has a sparse cadence and (more arty bollocks ahoy, I’m afraid) lack of showyness that belies its anthropological depth, and Driving on the Rim is the best of his more recent works. But if you want to start somewhere, try Panama, which I have to read at least once a year to keep sane… and teach me some humility as a scrawler.

And here I am nearing my self-imposed 1000 word maxima with so much more to spew forth – thoughts on Leveson, FarceBerk’s floatation, the Euro implosion, Waterstone’s faustian pact with Amazon and the joy of new fencing to name but a bit – but so little confidence in your continued tolerance that I’ll leave it ‘til next time.

Make a comment, check out previous blogs or subscribe to get ’em automatically via the righthand column.

A Man Needs A Shed May 3, 2012

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

As per my last outing, this scrawl owes much to other, more original authors in other, more original media. Much, but not everything, so let’s get the trite and personal out of the way first, and what could be more apt in both regards than a man and his hobbies?

I, for example, spend far too much money and time than is sensible for a man of my means futzing around with old cars and, periodically, old motorcycles. And in anticipation of a balmy summer and, more pragmatically, to cling onto the column I’ve scribbled these past couple of years for a classic bike mag whilst not actually owning a classic bike, now is one of those periods. And of course as I rode this 27 year-old, yet scarily fast Honda back from the very nice man in Evesham who’s hobby it had long been, it started raining. As it has done virtually ever since: so much for summer larks on two wheels.

But as is the way with such pastimes, inability to use the bugger in the manner intended – or more disparagingly, being a fair-weather biker – hasn’t prevented me from making plans to upgrade the suspension, re-jet the carburetors and maybe buy some panniers so I can pop over to Southern France and visit my biker pal David as I’ve been threatening to do for years now. Same goes for my aged Lancia and Citroen, although the latter is less of a hobby and more of a ‘daily driver’ (pause for hoots of laughter in North London), but all of them are to varying extents, strictly an indulgence.

This was brought home to me once again when I came to tax the Lancia this week – I only use it during the Summer which as mentioned, we still live in hope of – and figure out whether I can trust my patchy mechanical ability (and patchier patience) to adjust the valve clearances, replace the brake pads and torque-down the cylinder heads or pay for someone who knows what they’re doing to, well, do it.  Or should I forgot all this expensive mechanical nonsense and concentrate instead on more cerebral pursuits like the R. Crumb and Degas exhibitions that are tempting me to Paris this month, or maybe go and visit a couple of seriously ailing friends in foreign climes whilst they’re still clinging on, or buy a few hundred quids-worth of all the hardback books I keep meaning to read before they become so much digital Kindling, or acquire all that unowned Frank Zappa and Bruce Springsteen vinyl whilst it’s still – just – affordable… you can perhaps see where this is going? (And BTW, Bruce’s new ‘Wrecking Ball’ album is a cracker).

Yes, I’m sure you know people with much more useful or more intellectually, spiritually, hey, even morally worthwhile ‘hobbies’. But when there’s so much crap going on around us, and even when, as I’m sure most of us are, we’re having trouble maintaining certain standards of creature comfort, physical health or moral self-respect, should an oil-pressure warning switch for a long obsolete Italian car or a first edition of Thomas McGuane’s ‘Panama’ take precedence over keeping the radiators on an extra hour or two of a sodden, chilly May evening? In other words, are ‘hobbies’ a useless waste of time?

SHREDDING THE COMPETITION          Beats me, and the same might be said of John Naughton’s piece in last Sunday’s Observer which refreshingly (for him) asked “Has the internet run out of ideas…?” Naughton, one of those infuriatingly uncritical middle-aged champions of virtually everything electronic and new, argued that like other “gloriously creative, anarchic technologies” before it, e.g. telephony, t.v., film, the interweb is now governed by a few massive corporations whose initial geeky enthusiasms and certainly ideals have been subverted by the dubious codes of “shareholder value”.

“But perhaps,” he argues, “the biggest curb on innovation is that the technologies that might serve as the springboards for next-generation surprises are increasingly closed and controlled.” He cites Facebook – the Wal-Mart of the interweb – “busily creating a walled garden in which the only innovations that can arise from it are ones allowed by (its) proprietors. The same applies to the tethered devices we know as smartphones and tablets.”

Naughton is right, and as I occasionally delve into divisive, self-serving ‘conversations’ about the future of print vs. digital publishing on the arguably pointless business forum that is Linked-In, it’s clear that whilst the former may be dying out fast, the latter is disappearing up its own fragmenting commercial rectum because FarceBerk, Google, Apple (yes, Apple) and the rest damn well aren’t going to let anyone else into their playground.

The other likely eventuality, which admittedly Naughton also mentioned, was darkly posited by Andreas Whittam-Smith in a piece I clipped from The Independent back in February 2011. Hurling the much-lauded baton of ‘digital democracy’ then being heralded as empowering the so-called (and with hindsight, rather hollow) ‘Arab spring’ back into the black hole where it had long resided, Whittam-Smith noted the formation of Iran’s cyber-police and China’s hundreds of thousands of cyber-snitchers (the latter of course with Google’s acquiescence). Surveillance of websites and increasingly, mobile phone and tablet traffic is relatively easily mounted and, as he notes, “In Saudi Arabia, citizens are encouraged to report ‘immoral’ sites for blocking. The beauty of this approach for repressive regimes is that they can claim they are merely responding to public opinion.”

Well of course we Brits don’t inhabit such a regime, at least not unless the civic glue that binds us is washed away by the economic strictures of the posh boys and their banker pals who currently rule us, but I think I’ll slope off to my metaphoric shed, stick my head in a metaphoric bucket of sand, and see if I can get a few more horsepower out of the Honda.

Make a comment, check out previous blogs, or subscribe to get ’em automatically, via the right-hand panel