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Like Life, Only Better March 10, 2013

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

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!

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Arts For Heart’s Sake November 26, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, That's Entertainment.

Returning to Wales today I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between Britain’s post-industrial landscape and the one I travelled through in northern France yesterday aboard Eurostar. Here, nondescript clusters of empty, crumbling brick factories and warehouses sat forlornly skirting Midlands towns, interspersed occasionally with retail park blight, whereas in France the factories were almost uniformly big, white sheds shimmering beyond neatly ploughed fields. Of course those French factories may’ve well been dormant, too, although I rather hope the one whose identifying sign simply read ‘Potato Masters’ still had a life.

The news back home after a few days without it was, according to the Daily Telegraph, predictably grim: flooding across the country – plenty of evidence of that through my Virgin Voyager window – with higher food prices and home insurance premiums ahoy, shipyard closures imminent in Glasgow and Portsmouth, pubs still closing at the rate of seven a week, often bulldozed to make way for supermarkets using convenient planning loopholes and of course the inevitable and continuing recession which, we are now told, may mean wallowing in economic despair until 2018… probably much longer, if we can’t manufacture and export our way out of it, which we can’t. (But I was rather tickled by James Dyson whining about industrial espionage at the hands of an oriental mole, this being the same James Dyson lionised for his industrial savvy but who closed down his factories years ago in favour of outsourcing to… the orient).

Notwithstanding what may or may not have been going on in those shed-like factories, in France, or at least Paris which is where I’ve just been, things appear to be different, although that may well a tourist’s panglossian gaze. The glitzy shops in the Marais, where I stayed in a friend’s apartment, all seemed to be prospering and ditto the myriad restaurants, bars and bistros. The art galleries, which along with serious socialising were the main purpose of my trip, heaving to the extent that after queuing for two hours in the rain for the Edward Hopper show at the Grand Palais we could take it no longer and went round the corner to see The Bohemians after merely a ten minute queue. As my Paris-based companion pointed out, this was hung with a panache that the French seem to do particularly well which made up for the somewhat patchy quality of the works themselves, but there were other treats in store, most notably the Sarah Paulsen show at the very wonderful Maison Europeeene de la Photographie and the ever reliable Musée D’Orsay where a smallish show of Van Gochs, Vuillards and Bonnards (the latter whom I never quite get) alone justified the price of admission.

But slightly hungover from yet another night of over indulgence denied sufficient time to do justice to the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers before hightailing it to the Gare du Nord. This is one of the great neglected musées – it doesn’t even feature in most guidebooks – featuring an extraordinary four centuries-worth of scientific, industrial and architectural instruments, inventions and machinery curated with considerable aesthetic flair and intelligibility.

Now you may say that London and even many provincial British galleries, shops and restaurants are also doing gangbusters business despite the recession, and you may be right. But over here I sense a degree of desperation compelling us to get as much culture under our belts as we can before tightening them even further, and/or the arts lose even more funding and thus public accessibility. (On a tiny scale, I am already involved in trying to replace recently withdrawn government funding for local arts and education institutes here in Wales, with yet more to come).

Enough has been written about the civilising effects of the arts on society, often by me, for such concerns to be obvious to anyone with half a brain, but the plethora of publicly available culture in France – Paris has more museums than filling stations – does seem to be reflected in the mood of the Parisian demi monde who, just looking at the handsome smartly-dressed citizens striding the streets and packing the galleries, seemed somehow happier and more optimistic. Plus of course they let motorcycles park on the pavement – truly the sign of an enlightened society and the reason why so many are ridden round the city.

Still, this year I am again doing my bit to raise the cultural bar by appearing in our local pantomime, on this occasion playing the local county councillor, an aging, eccentrically attired ‘confirmed bachelor’  – typecast again I fear – who dies a hideous death as the second act opens. And talking of ugly demises, I’m currently and simultaneously reading Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Mother’s Milk’ and A.M. Homes ‘May We Be Forgiven’, both darkly hilarious, and both including grandmothers suffering dementia. Add to these ‘Amour’, cheery Michael Haneke’s latest flic which considers the incapacitating aspects of old age… and suddenly cognitive decline seems all the rage. I am tempted to say ‘Bring it on’ as it might provide blessed relief from all that ails us in the world, but for the moment at least, I prefer my oblivion bottle shaped, and let’s face it, the French do produce some remarkably good wines and spirits. Must get back there a.s.a.p.

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Time to Party July 30, 2012

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

So much has happened since I last scribbled, most of it pretty dismal, that when finally motivated to resume hostilities last week, I was full of despair and bile. In fact I actually wrote 90% of a rancorous epistle but abandoned it during the final sprint towards Sheep Music, the aftermath of which rather changed my mind, and certainly my mood. From which there are perhaps lessons to be learnt.

So Sheep Music: discuss. Some may know of my involvement in this Welsh Marches festival tradition, indeed I was its first ever (and embarrassingly bad) compere in 1992, when it was basically just a couple of hundred friends having a party a field overlooking Presteigne. I’d obviously persuaded the local newspaper I then edited to become its first sponsor and the bands, playing on a flat-bed trailer, included a rather great all-girl soul outfit and a band called Bob, named after the Border Terrier who sat stage front looking singularly unimpressed throughout. But the sun shone, the booze flowed as easily as the music, and we had fun.

In later years it all got more serious, or at least bigger, and by the mid-noughties Sheep Music was a three day affair attracting up to 4000 people with two tented stages, an all-night disco and copious face-painting. But in 2007 the heavens opened, the river below the town meadow site flooded the camping field and the result was a quagmire.

Sunday morning 2007

Sunday morning, 2007

We stewards then spent several grueling hours removing tents and their contents to higher ground, in the dark, whilst their blissfully unaware owners boogied on down 400 yards away.  As a consequence subsequent attendance was minimal and we lost lots of money. “Never again” was the communal cry from the shattered, dispirited organisers who, incidentally, are unpaid volunteers: Sheep Music Ltd is a charity which recycles any profits into local music education.

But in 2009 we just couldn’t help ourselves, having raised enough seed capital from small events and grants to justify, as we must do by law, having another go. And that’s because it’s a kind of tribal celebration fondly entrenched in the community, bringing those who’ve moved away for whatever reason back to have a good time with those who haven’t. Never aspiring to become a Glasto or even a Secret Garden Party, and run by amateurs aided by deeply discounted services from local suppliers, ticket prices are affordable and, notwithstanding the internet’s ubiquity, its marketing extends little further than a 40 miles radius.

And in 2009 I took on that marketing, and also ticket sales and managing some 30 gate stewards. And it rained, not as unremittingly as in ’07, but enough to deter sufficient ‘walk-ups’ on Saturday and Sunday to make a profit. Plus, after weeks of 16-18 hour days, my immune systems were trashed and I succumbed to pneumonia immediately it ended.

But to try and refill the coffers, in 2010 we sort of did it again with evening events over two consecutive weekends in the geodesic dome we’d bought to house community events. The ‘Dome Alone’ gigs were a success musically and fund-raising-wise, but still no-one really had the appetite for another full-on three-dayer. Except, that is, for a bunch of 18-22 year-olds, weaned on endless summery Sheep Musics, who were very much up for it, delighting those of us keen to pass down the proverbial baton. All the original trustees resigned, to be replaced by myself and a trio of oldsters who kept a fatherly but hopefully not condescending eye on the young bloods.

But as is the nature of these things, what they had in enthusiasm and new ideas, they sometimes lacked in perspective and experience. And of course when you’re running such an event in the 21st Century, debilitating irritations like Health & Bloody Safety, child protection, multi-lateral licensing and security can’t be ignored. So as July 20th loomed and the heavy lifting got heavier, some of the new management team inevitably fell by the wayside. And considering the crap summer we’d had so far, the forecast was for a wet weekend which threatened to turn the site into a paddy field again, so we trustees had to impose expensive and complicated contingency measures. And when it became clear that cancelation would prove more expensive than going ahead and having to restore a muddied site, we had to step up to the plate and help the young ‘uns meet the burgeoning deadlines.

Sunday morning, 2012

Sunday morning, 2012

So just as I’d begun working a hugely welcome publishing contract, like the rest of the trustees I had to get my hands dirty and resembling a hippy nightclub bouncer, run around a lot with a walkie-talkie from 8.30am ‘til 3 or 4am during the final day of build week and the festival itself. But in the event it didn’t rain, the hitherto soggy turf quickly dried out, across five diverse venues the music was a blast and the reward of all those glowing (and thankfully sunburnt) punters’ faces compounded the camaraderie that quickly builds during the endless fire-fighting that is running a festival.  Yes, there were some hideous moments, e.g. the main generator failing at 11pm on Friday plunging everything into silent darkness before the back-up kicked in five minutes later, a couple of violent exchanges on the campsite (girls in both cases, oddly), a desperate last minute race to Hereford to get illuminated Fire Exit signs, the usual lost children and drunks, cleaning overwhelmed porta-loos at night (such joy)… plus clearing up umpteen skiploads of rubbish, tons of coconut matting and 600 yards of fencing etc., afterwards. But even the beyond-exhausted organisers, incongruous in our day-glo bibs and dangling walkies, still found the energy to dance like grinning loons to Sunday night’s headliners, Keymono.

A week later I’ve finally caught up on my sleep, the last of the marquees and the stonking great 75KvA generators have gone (charmingly named ‘Spitfire’ and ‘Hurricane’), but the glow of satisfaction remains,

Fellow trustee Richard G. and self with ‘Spitfire’, the power behind the thrown.

even if, as a fellow trustee wryly noted it was, “Just a few thousand people. Having a party. In a field.”

For some proper pics of this year’s event, check out ‘official’ photographer Alex Ramsay’s FarceBerk page: http://tinyurl.com/d3cl3ef

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FaceBook and the Fall of Europe May 31, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics, That's Entertainment.

So little space, so much to blurt but as I promised, or rather threatened, a couple of days ago, ready-or-not here it comes.

You’re on FarceBerk right? Almost everyone I know is, even the technophobic and downright shy ones (like me). Some are heavy users posting details of their irritatingly mundane daily activities because they ain’t yet discovered Twitter, others simply regard it as an occasional digital promo-tool for whatever fabulous or intellectually laudable activities they’re up to (like me). But basically I hate it. Sure, it allows you to ‘keep up’ with friends, acquaintances and digital hucksters who from boastful references to your killer air guitar solos will bombard you with adverts for home recording software. Which is why young Marky Zuckerberg floated his brainchild on the NASDAQ last week, becoming even more obscenely rich in the process.

As we now know, the brokers concerned, Morgan Stanley, apparently fibbed about the true state of FB’s advertising revenues, pushed the asking price for shares from $28 to $35 and covertly issued 25% more shares than they claimed. Result? When the truth outed, FB’s share price plummeted and as I scribble the company’s valuation has dropped by some $25billion – yep, 25 billion – although it’s apparently still worth a chunky $79billion and I’m guessing the young snot who started it isn’t wailing too loudly. My underlying point is this: we are surely heading for another dot-com crash, but one that will make the Euro Crisis look like a Sunday afternoon game of Monopoly. Consider that FarceBerk is trading at a price-to-earnings multiple of 81, or 107 times earnings reported in the last 12 months. (The NASDAQ Internet Index average – which includes such heavy hitters as Gargle and fleaBay, is a more modest – but in my view, still barmy – 35 times earnings.) Which means that FarceBerk is gonna have to seriously ramp up its commercial exploitation of your daily doodlings if it’s to justify its revenue predictions.

Since virtually all of these outfits, and especially business-media sites like the equally egregious LinkedIn, currently have very limited ad. revenues, the unseemly rush to buy their shares is classic smoke’n’mirrors stuff, but the difference is that unlike the 2001 dot-com crash, technology stocks now represent a far greater slice of U.S. equities than they did then – almost 50% as opposed to 8% in 2001 – so the fall will be far more traumatic.

This matters for anyone saving for, say, a pension or who has a mortgage. Why? Because banks worldwide, and that includes the bank-of-last-resort, namely the IMF, have to rely on rising stock values to support their loans and debts unless like Britain (and pre-Nazi Germany), they simply print money. And if Greece abandons the Euro and goes third-world – which I bet it will – then the cost to banks holding Greek debt, which is virtually all of ‘em, will be massive. And if those stellar digi-stocks turn out to be nothing more than the Emperor’s New Suit of Woes… be afraid, be very afraid.

Which is why I read the interview with Christine Legarde in last Saturday’s Guardian with a jaundiced smirk. Sexy and bright though she is – in my book that’s horse’n’carriage territory – slapping down the Greeks for borrowing too much from central European lenders without visible means of support will only inflame an already irate population to vote in an anti-austerity left-wing (or neo-fascist right-wing), government next month who’ll demand a return  to the Drachma. Then all hell will break loose on the European markets, Spain, Portugal and possible Italy will follow suit, which won’t be pretty.

Undeniably ugly was Tony Blair’s performance at the Leveson enquiry last week during which he admitted that “if you fall out with a big media empire, then watch out because it is relentless”, yet with breathtaking impudence also claimed that there was “no deal” with R. Murdoch over New Labour’s European or media policies. Blair spouting lies is, of course, something we take for granted now, but I was still cheered by David Lawley-Watkin who managed to breech Leveson’s security cordon and live(ish) on television accuse our ex-PM of being “a war criminal” who was “paid-off” by  American bankers J.P. Morgan for supporting Bush Jnr’s ruinous Iraq invasion. It was good to see Teflon Tony rattled by his own deceit, if only momentarily.

Leveson is of course turning into an endless saga that threatens to inure us to the magnitude of the venal relationship between politics and the media. In this it is much like the constant unfolding of atrocity in Syria which no amount of hand-wringing by NATO and world leaders will bring to an end, and this because of course the West has too many vested interests in not intervening militarily, especially the Israelis and their Yank backers/apologists.  How Lord Leveson can ever come to a conclusion about the incidence of newspaper ‘phone hacking, political bribery by-any-other-name and all the rest is beyond me, but I fear the slaughter in Syria will continue unless and until Russia and China find that the Assad regime they so loyally support has lost its strategic value as an oil producer and Iranian-proxy. Only then will the hand-wringing stop and the gunships go in.

On a happier note – perpetual ray of sunshine, that’s me – all you book burners will be delighted that James Daunt, CEO of Britain’s last remaining bookstore chain, Waterstones, announced last week that it will start selling Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. Only months ago Daunt denounced Amazon as “a ruthless money-making devil” which threatened the very existence of the printed word, so has he caved into what some of my friends and many an online forum bleater see as inevitable and if so, how long will his bricks and mortar book browsoriums™ remain in situ?

Three years, maybe? By which time the piffling amounts cash-strapped councils save by closing their libraries will have removed yet another source of print’n’paper literature. Proof? At 2am on Tuesday police-protected renta-a-thugs protected emptied Kensal Rise Library – opened by Mark Twain in 1900 – of its stock whilst protestors looked on helplessly. You have been warned.

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Crumb of Comfort May 28, 2012

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

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.

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My Award-Winning Blog Joy April 3, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics, That's Entertainment.

For my sins, once a month I physically distribute to shops, libraries, pubs and cafes the free local listings magazine for which I am, ahem, film critic. I used to kid myself that the few quid I get paid for this were adequate compensation for the brilliant (if unpaid) reviews of movies I pay good money to go and see, but with unleaded at 150p a litre and my big, fat Citruin proving just about the thirstiest car I’ve ever owned, that’s become a bit of a joke. Still, when the weather’s nice it’s a joy to swoop through the Marches and drop off bundles of mags to folk who are generally pleased to see it and have a brief chat, even if my day’s work yields about tuppence profit. And of course I can boast to any of my  industry peers who’ll listen that unlike them with their media studies degree and secretaries called Felicity, I’m experienced in every part of the publishing process.

Last month on my rounds I was striding through one small town when I saw in its sole remaining butchers a handwritten sign proclaiming its ‘Award Winning Sausages’. Now me, I like a nice sausage from time to time so I went in, bought half a pound of pork’n’leek bangers, then idly enquired as to who’d made the award. “Local chamber of trade,” came the guileless answer. But having left the shop, I reflected on the implausible nature of a local honour given to an enterprise that essentially had no competition. And then as I blew a few hundred thousand hydrocarbons into the air firing up the mighty Citruin, on the more general absurdity of what I shall christen the ‘awards culture’.

You can’t have escaped noticing that every other company these days trumpets their wares with some kind of award. Waste a few minutes of your precious life with Mr Google and you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of portentously bestowed Texas chili recipes, metric socket sets, computer monitoring software, continental lagers, lingerie shops and, for all I know bomb-making kits and DIY pornstar manuals, any real value they obtain from such accolades surely debased by their sheer numbers?

So personally I pay little or no attention to such trumped-up trifles – unless sausages are involved of course – so I wonder if anyone else does? Years ago, when I was editing and publishing magazines, I did in fact inaugurate a trio of fatuous accolades handed out by the motorcycle magazines I then helmed. With the exception of the International Bike of the Year which genuinely sought the opinions of bike hacks across the globe, the others were determined by my colleagues and staff and geared very much to the manufacturer who the advertising staff reckoned would pay the most for double page spread celebrating their triumph. Or even their Triumph.

I can only assume such cynical maneuvering lies behind most or all of the fatuous honours granted to estate agents, call centre operators and tyre fitters, and also assume that you, too, will regard them with appropriate scepticism. Except of course the Teresa May Digital Halfwits’ Award for Blog of the Month which, by an extraordinary coincidence was most recently won by Mark’s Sparks Will Fly. Let’s see if my numbers, if not my number will be up as a result of this… and the vagaries of Search Engine optimisation?

Meantime some addenda to a few of my much beaten drums.

PADDY – 2 , TESCO – 0         Although the Scottish parliament jettisoned a similar proposal in back in January, Northern Ireland is to increase business rates for retail properties valued at £500,000 or more by 15% which will apparently raise £5million which will be used to reduce rates on struggling smaller shops. Naturally Tesco, Sainsburys et al whined furiously about this, and naturally I think it’s a topping wheeze which, given that NI is part of the UK, might be seen as a more hopeful sign that our wonderful government is finally willing to consider rebalancing the retail landscape than any gimmicky posturing by the likes of Mary ‘Big Knickers’ Portas.

A TOWN WITHOUT MALICE ?         If so, it might just possibly have some benefits for our own little town. My regular reader may recall that we recently lost our major employer, a specialist foundry that put too many eggs in an automotive industry basket and hadn’t used their profits to re-tool for when the car makers inevitably adopted new designs and left them with nowhere else to go. Not uncoincidentally, the local HSBC bank followed soon after and I recently spent a few hours at a public ‘Town Regeneration Meeting’ designed to try and stop the rot. But I’m afraid needless to say it was largely a talking shop in which local councilors, our two MPs (UK and Welsh) and lots of consultants in Next casualwear talked shop and made worthily vacuous appeals for we citizens to “regain a sense of local pride” and “get involved”. Quite in what wasn’t made clear, except perhaps in mastering PowerPoint presentations and manning charity shops, but I rather rashly put my name down as a potential volunteer and shall keep you posted.

CHANNELING TAX AVOIDANCE        And then there was George Osborne announcing in his recent budget that he’s plugging the VAT loophole exploited by major online retailers like Amazon, Dixons and fleaBay whereby they can avoid or severely reduce VAT on goods posted from subsidiaries in the Channel Islands. This will level the playing field for smaller and even some large online and mail-order outfits that can’t afford or aren’t inclined to cheat the exchequer to the tune of some £140million a year which, although I found almost everything else in the Chancellor’s latest tax grab punitive and socially divisive, is basically a good thing. Except for the outfit I buy my award winning re-cycled ink jet cartridges from.

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My Book, But Their Back Pages March 15, 2012

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

I am obviously failing to post my scrawls more frequently than, well, erratically which makes me wonder how those who scribble ‘em weekly, never mind daily, manage it. Money is probably the motive, and if I could find a way to monetise my meanderings – and gawd knows I’ve tried – then I might do it oftener, too. Which of course prompts a return to a favourite hobby horse, namely that free, unregulated (and usually un-edited) digital discourse is what’s killing print media, a prompt I will however resist because you’re bored witless by such obvious statements.

However, Luddite that I am, my increasingly perverse attachment to print journalism found me updating my scrap-book this week and I wonder in this respect if I’m a dying breed? I maintain of course that my pile of bright red 9½ x 14½ inch ‘Silvine’ scrapbooks (a paltry £1.75 from most remaining newsagents) with their reassuringly furry pages are a source of information worth keeping which no website can match.

All Inhuamn Life Is Here

True, I could probably scan and store newspaper and magazine articles in some onscreen file, but that would only complicate the storage process, and with only an A4 scanner, it would make it more awkward than merely folding over a part of a broadsheet feature to fit into my physical book.

The personalised selection of material glued onto its pages obviously reflects my own narrow and arguably facile interests and certainly doesn’t constitute a ‘journal of record’, but it’s both interesting and sometimes useful to trawl backwards through these tomes and read, say, Ed Miliband as Labour’s last Climate Change Secretary telling us that “Opposing windfarms should be socially taboo” (Guardian of March 9th 2009), or about the Telford schoolboys who “almost won” an international competition with a car built from hardboard and scrap metal (Shropshire Star, Oct 9th 1992), or learn in the Telegraph of April 30th 2009 that “The average Briton has only three true friends”  – my response to which was, ‘Wow, that many?’

And so unlike my friend Dick Pountain who posts less frequently but with far greater gravitas and perspicacity (www.dickpountain.co.uk),  in a desperate effort to maintain a blogging presence I shall tell you what I glued into my book this week. After The Times’ wistful piece on the demise of cinema projectionists in the digital age (March 12th), and since I was just moaning about lack of income, a piece in the E. Standard’s Londoner’s Diary (also March 12th) caught my eye. It noted that under the Freedom of Info. Act a Mr Asif Khan had asked BBC1tv why they’d hired Claudia Winkleman, who in his opinion had no “particular qualifications, knowledge or love of cinema”, to present Film 2012. Was there, he asked, any specific quality she possesses over and above an experienced film critic? The Beeb’s clearly rattled response was that by law they weren’t obliged to answer Mr Khan, but Londoner’s Diary waspishly noted that La Winkleperson is married to sometime film producer, Kris Thykier.

Now Asif Khan isn’t the only one exasperated by La Winkleperson’s performance on Film 2012. She tries to mask her filmic ignorance with an abundance of gush and a rotating coterie of movie buffs who she obsessively turns to for opinions and factoids that she can’t muster. At least her immediate predecessor, Jonathon Ross’s carefully scripted presentation was clearly underpinned by a lifetime of celluloid worship, and of course before him we had the greatest living hairpiece that is encyclopedic movie punmeister, Barry Norman. However if Winkleperson was hired because she’s wedded to a producer of just three rather bad films, I think they should replace her with Yrs. Trly., if only because her husband didn’t even make it into the Top 100 of World Cinema’s Power 100 (Guardian, Sept 24th 2010) whereas my sister, Clare Binns, was number 70, quickly elevated to #30 in The Times’ list of movie biz luminaries (February 11th 2012).

Sister Clare, who programmes the films shown in her 18-string Picturehouse chain as well as most other British indie cinemas, of course relies heavily on my advice and recommendations (as film critic for the hugely prestigious Welsh listings rag, Broad Sheep… talking of poor puns). But although Claudia may look nice, have very shiny hair and a husband who bankrolls crap films, I have the advantage of being willing to sleep with any influential BBC executive who might hire me, and without incurring spousal wrath.

Talking of nepotism, which obviously I fully embrace, when recently trawling for scrapbook fodder through a so-called ‘quality press’ increasingly reliant on vacuous opinion and celebrity pap masquerading as feature material (because they don’t have the budgets for newsgathering anymore and it’s all online anyway), I suddenly realised why I’ve never been welcomed aboard the national newspaper gravy train: I’m just not related to the right people. There’s Andrei Harmsworth, Metro’s gossip shill and a scion of the Northcliffe publishing dynasty, the S. Times’ Daisy Waugh, daughter of the late contrarian columnist, Auberon – to name but two – who got hired because of their ancestry, not their merit. And even in my own wee world of automotive hackery, Richard Heseltine has a lovely gig on Classic & Sportscar: surely not unconnected with his father Tarzan’s ownership of its publishers, Haymarket?

So given their current parlous circumstances and my total lack of moral fibre, I am thinking of applying for a top job at News International, on the basis that I am actually just about young enough to be the hitherto secret bastard son of Ripper Murdoch. After all, somewhere in my scrapbook I’m sure I have a clipping from The Sydney Morning Herald concerning young Rupe’s fixation with a flame-haired temptress of ill-repute circa 1950…

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Digital Defeatism November 28, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, That's Entertainment.

Not entirely sheepishly, I must nonetheless report my recent and loudly trumpeted digital hiatus a qualified failure. My regular reader may recall that I’d hoped to eschew internet and mobile phone use for at least a week and strictly speaking, I did. But after eight days I couldn’t manage to execute an admittedly unexpected magazine commission by landline and Royal Mail alone, and from there on in it was a slippery slope.

Wiser and more self-disciplined heads than mine scoffed at my decision to cut myself off completely from the modern world, but so easily seduced was I by the plethora of information and its near unlimited right of entry, I had found it impossible to restrict my digital dalliance to a specific timetable. Indeed I’d speculated that access to other life- and intelligence-enhancing activities was suffering as a consequence of being wedded to the web, and in this respect I was vindicated.  I did indeed do a lot more reading, both of books and periodicals, and I also found myself having long and often illuminating ‘phone conversations with people who were as pleasantly surprised as I was to pick up their landlines and find someone on the other end not trying to sell them home insurance.

I actually received a couple of letters from friends who’d taken my original online statement of intent seriously, thus reviving the ancient art of physical correspondence which I much enjoyed and soon embellished with a modest blizzard of postcards, in a couple of cases prompting welcome if slightly bemused ‘phone calls from surprised recipients. In my best ‘Outraged of East Grinstead’ mode I even fired off a couple of letters to newspapers criticising columns I’d found particularly irritating, although unlike my earlier (emailed) salvo to Prospect magazine attacking their aggrandizement of think tanks, neither of them were published. Overall though, I somehow felt more relaxed, with more time for reflection and being less attuned to the demands of others, demands which have inevitably become defined by the digital over a decade or so. And in this respect I can honestly say it made a valuable difference. Having said which, one of the iniquities of email and text messaging is that we are tempted to fire off and expect instant responses to our own needs, whims and fancies with only minimal forethought.

Sadly if inevitably, once the rot had set back in and I started to check, if not always return emails again (about day nine), switched my mobile phone back on (day eleven) and answered my first text (day thirteen), it became blindingly obvious that modern man cannot live alone, or at least not without instant digital gratification. Put another way – we are all prisoners of technology.

But for disingenuous techno-luddites such as I now obviously am, there was one bit of good news whilst I was away, and one bit of bad. Penguin announced that they would not be supplying their new ebooks to libraries for fear of hackers removing their protective encryption – in which case wither protection? – and pirating them to all and digital sundry. But countering this glimmer of hope for the survival on the printed word, we also learnt that the energy consumption of the average UK household has increased five-fold since 1987, much of it due to our use of computers and associated devices. In which case wither global warming? And don’t get me started on bloody windfarms and wave-power.

As a not entirely irrelevant aside, in yesterday’s Observer, agony aunt Mariella Frostrup attempted to cheer up a woman so beset by fears of the imminent collapse of civilisation due to economic foment, sectarian hatred, blah-blah-blah, that she was actively considering suicide. And this just after watching Jeff  Nichols’s new film, Take Shelter, in which a decent American father, played with a growing intensity by Michael Shannon, addresses his similarly prescient visions of Armageddon by basically, like, going bonkers and building a sturdy underground bunker in which he incarcerates his family.

As for me, and despite both Mariella’s somewhat unsympathetic advice (basically “Get a grip, dearie – our great world leaders know what they’re doing”) and last week’s prosecution of a gang producing fake and borderline poisonous Glen’s vodka (which for years I’d happily been buying at Harry Tuffins in Knighton for £12.45 a litre), I’ve managed to find something called Tamova at an even lower £11.99… I know how I’m going to face our uncertain and disagreeable future. Cheers!

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Doing Without Digital November 2, 2011

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

In Steven Soderbergh’s latest  movie, Contagion, the great Elliott Gould’s deeply cynical government big-wig dismisses the Jude Law character’s iffy conspiracy theories by snapping, “You’re a blogger, not a journalist, no-one’s going to take any notice of you.”

And so I return to one of my regular if rather forlorn topics, namely the pointlessness of my writing, and you reading, this. But only briefly, because when I’ve successfully submitted that rare thing, a blessedly well paid bit of print journalism I’ve just been working on, I’m going to conduct a little experiment which I think may put the interweb, or at least the tiny sliver of it that I inhabit, into some relief. My plan is to turn off my web browser and with it my email account, and also my mobile phone, and keep them that way for at least a week – possibly much longer.

Although I personally haven’t read their experiences, I’m aware that various hacks and even respected writers have embarked on similar adventures, but since I’m not being paid to find out how or indeed if life changes as a consequence of being digitally disconnected, my motives are probably quite different. And they go like this.

I now reckon that I average two to three hours online every day, seven days a week – more, many more, if engaged in some heavy-duty research.

I also have an increasing tendency to email or text people I can’t easily get hold of by phone, or don’t actually want to talk to for fear of embarrassment or ennui. And I also suspect that the time it takes to successfully conclude such ‘conversations’, as we now so erroneously refer to them, is much longer than might be taken up by a simple phone call. For example, just yesterday I spent five minutes receiving or sending a total of eight texts in order to meet up with a friend which could’ve been accomplished by one 30 second phonecall. Five minutes which involved repeatedly interrupting and losing my train of thought over something I was trying to write, which in fact probably meant ten or fifteen more minutes of lost labour.

The consequences of being liberated from this is something are both tantalising and terrifying – the former because I don’t manage to spend as much time as I used to reading, listening to music, talking to friends, futzing around (that’s a technical term for using sophisticated engineering techniques) with my cars etc., etc., the latter because I fear that all this extra time mightn’t be much use because ten years welded to the web has limited my ability to concentrate on reading anything non-digital except wine labels and, cunning though it is, The Week.

Talking of which, The Week’s publisher, my friend Felix Dennis, for many years had printed on his personal office stationary something like, “We do not, and never will, have email”. Moreover he’s the only person I knowingly know who doesn’t have a mobile phone.  All very admirable if purity of communication is what we’re talking about – and here aboard my high horse I surely am – but you might reasonably wonder how he could successfully run a thriving print and digital publishing empire without such apparently essential tools. The answer, of course, is that he has a retinue of trusted assistants who do have email addresses and mobile phones and he simply barks out his orders, enquiries and thoughts to them which they then disseminate to the, ahem, end users. That said, Felix is also the only person I still maintain a regular, if occasionally robust postal correspondence with.

And whilst I certainly savour that, I am not filthy rich and he is. However it does remind me of when I was at least quite affluent and quite successful and had p.a’s who could do my bidding. Tellingly, that was when I worked for or owned publishing companies of various sizes in which the efficiency, the number and the quality of staff were a crucial factor in the success or failure of our magazines.  In principle that remains so, but the jobs they do are quite different now. Magazines, newspapers and for all I know websites rely very little on full-time employees to produce their content, much of which is contracted out (but without secure contracts, of course) to freelancers or third parties who in turn employ only freelancers. This is a mixed blessing: on the one hand it means media can be more specialised yet remain economically viable with titchy readerships (hurrah); on the other it means their few permanent staff are perpetually overworked and inefficient, emphasis is placed on the cheapest possible content which invariably means that any given periodical lacks the common, unifying characteristics that once made great titles great, and so overall these titles’ quality, and ergo their fortunes, deteriorate (boo-hoo).

But this is also a theme I’ve warmed to in the past and like the object of Elliott Gould’s derision, it make not a jot of difference to anyone. I’m hoping therefore that in abandoning the digital, my own communication skills will be revitalised, my vocabulary broadened, I’ll return to using books, libraries and the phone to find stuff out, and I’ll elicit more responses like that from a friend who admitted with some astonishment that our ten minute phone conversation – landline-to-landline, natch – was the longest purely social such exchange he’d had in years. And for all I know, I might just restore the Royal Mail’s fortunes, too.

So if you don’t hear from me for a while,  it’s because you haven’t got my landline number or postal address. Enjoy!

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

A cartoon in a recent New Yorker, reproduced below, mercilessly sums up the motives of those who scribble on the internet. Or at least mine and, I suspect, the majority of others. There is however a minority who actually get paid to regularly promote or pontificate online, but I bet it’s a tiny one. After all, if a digital monster like the Huffington Post can get away with paying zilch to the hundreds if not thousands of writers whose work it aggregates, then I suspect only the p.r. arms of large commercial and political institutions do actually reward their bloggers financially.

(C) The New Yorker – so sue me why don't you?

Sometimes this angers me, not least because as little as four years ago I had seven paid monthly columns in various magazines, plus regular feature commissions from most of them, all of which amounted to earning a modest living. Now I have but two such columns, at reduced rates, very little feature work and two of those magazines have closed. The rest have imposed greater workloads on their permanent staff with, I maintain, a subsequent reduction in quality which will in turn likely lose them readers… but I would say that, wouldn’t I?  Crocodile tears I can live without, but it’s a measure of how the print publishing landscape has changed so radically in just a few years that many journalists who genuinely love to write – and I count myself amongst them – largely if not only are able to do so, and only for free, in a medium that has confiscated large chunks of their income. Irony overload.

One of the other paradoxes of this is that in response to the rolling but often superficial news formats prevalent on radio, t.v and most especially the internet, the newspapers which we used to rely on for news and investigative journalism have reduced such content considerably, replacing it with columns, criticism, commentary pieces and general interest features. Which we used, and to an extent still get, in the dwindling cohort of magazines.

Much of this I no longer bother to read because it is simply anodyne, or in shameless thrall to the entertainment and fashion industries. For example, most of what we once called the quality press is full of puff pieces promoting a new film, album, t..v. programme or, just occasionally, a book via an up-their-arse profile of its star or creator, especially at weekends which is when I (sometimes) have time to sit down and read them.

Which might – just – be alright if the standard of critical reviewing and editorial oversight counterbalanced such fawning prose, but increasingly it doesn’t.

One example of this which particularly irked me concerned a new film by newish Danish director, Nicholas Winding Refn, with star du jour, Ryan Gosling leadenly playing a virtually mute getaway driver. Admittedly with its taut if spare plot, lots of gratuitous violence and some decent performances from Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks (about time too), Ron Perlman and a neat cameo against type from Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, Drive isn’t a bad film. So far, so okay. But not one, not one single reviewer in any of the ‘papers I read – and after the first two or three I made a point of seeking out five or six others (my local newsagent loves me) mentioned that Drive is a hugely derivative rip of The Driver, a far superior film by Walter Hill. Released in 1978, it features Ryan O’Neal in the eponymous title role and the witheringly beautiful Isabel Adjani as the femme fatale he hooks up with. (If you haven’t seen it, read a brilliant critique in my seminal 1981 tome, Road Movies, which is rarely available via dusty secondhand bookshops, oh and Amazon, for about tuppence).

Even The Observer’s Philip French, who generally knows his way around cinema’s back catalogue and often references obscure foreign language flics to make his point in a showy-offy way, even he failed to point out the plagiarism. It underlines the poor standard of film criticism which ill-informed, perhaps willfully ill-informed journalists are allowed to get away with these days, journalists who a year ago might’ve been restaurant, motoring or music critic or op-ed columnists or some fashion editor’s favoured off-spring – yes believe it or not, even in the morally unimpeachable world of print, nepotism happens. And so the media merry-go-round continues its ever-decreasing circle around and around and eventually up its own bum.

Except, of course in the New Yorker where although they may be what is politely called ‘seasoned’, the same old meticulous but largely brilliant and knowledgeable journalists ply their trade untrammeled by the disruptive and coarsening predations of the interweb. Needless to say, the only critic who had the gumption and perhaps, given the power that Hollywood wields  in this economically-strapped medium, the courage to establish in considerable detail that Drive is simply a flashy reproduction of The Driver was the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane.

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