Happy holidays

alan

Today is the shortest day of the year. It was the darkest when you woke up, and it will be the darkest when you go to bed. Dark thoughts propagate in the darkness. I give you Alan the black cat, who was behind Door #18 of the Cats Protection advent calendar. No matter what ailed Alan before he was photographed by the charity – malnutrition, abandonment, cruelty – he’s better now. That’s empirical. Hold that thought.

I entered a shop that sells records at the weekend and purchased a CD, Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the band’s sixteenth. It was always intended to be a stripped-back album about death, but the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, during its recording has clearly influenced some of the more improvised lyrics. When I bought it, the woman working behind the counter told me that the staff had put it on the shop’s PA when it was released in September and their manager begged them to take it off, as it was driving customers out of the shop. I can’t stop playing it.

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I had it on my headphones as I walked across Hungerford Bridge at around 7.30am this morning, on the shortest day, when London was a long way into the process of waking up, the sky fading from black to blue. It comforted me, oddly. This has been another year in which the prospect of spending much time in Central London, or indeed in any major city in Europe, has filled me with dread. The likelihood of being gunned down, or blown up, or deliberately run over, seems to be much higher than it has ever seemed before – and I’ve lived in London for 32 years, I ought to be immune to it by now! But … you go about your business – and most of my trips into Central London are for business – and beat those who seek to harm by not thinking about them. Think instead of Alan, and the profound way his life has been changed by kindness.

WordNewWord

Last night was one of the few guaranteed to bring warmth in my “more selective” social calendar: the annual Word Magazine (2003-2012) reunion, valiantly organised by Nige Tassell, who has much further to travel than most, and is someone I might not have met without Word. Numbers have dwindled since the first such gathering in a pub in Islington, but certain troopers tend to form a quorum: David Hepworth, Fraser Lewry, Andrew Harrison, Mark Hodkinson, John Naughton, Caroline Grimshaw, Steve Yates. It was an oasis of something more meaningful that the ubiquitous modern fallback “banter”: stories told, memories shared, a year of professional and personal updates, craft beer, pizza, winter coats, and all within the sound of the old Word offices. I have to venture that last night’s get-together had an almost imperceptible air of mortality about it – much talk of whether or not certain beloved musicians of the post-punk era had turned 60 yet; the sharing of employment anxieties; actual news of ailments. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, of course.

Nobody is about to get out the violins for a bunch of media operatives, mostly self-employed, in their forties and fifties, bemoaning the paucity of opportunities in a business that once thrived on human interaction and having a desk, but is now run from home, and via email, if at all. (John still works for GQ and confirms that there are no shortage of people gainfully employed in the fashion magazine sector, and Radio Times, too, lines a lot of journalists, editors, designers and sub-editors up with lockable drawers and phone extensions in the cause of producing a content-heavy listings magazine, but a lot of the old certainties are falling away elsewhere.) It’s not just manual work that’s being taken over by machines. The machines have been decimating “old media” for years, and with it, the living human beings who once suckled at its colourful teat.

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I’ve spent a lot of the last two weeks using social media to promote an online auction for Cats Protection, wherein celebrities (and I use that category with caution, as one of them was me) donated customised “paw print” artwork and bids were bid via eBay. The scheme raised a cumulative £1,215 for injured, abandoned, mistreated and poorly cats and kittens: the Alans. (Black cats are a special case, as they are statistically less likely to be rehomed than more colourful cats because it’s harder to read their faces.) I was proud to play my part. The whole thing framed social media in a celestial light. But Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming distorted by hate. If 2016 can be said to be characterised by anything, it’s online bile.

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Lena Dunham, a provocative figure with a large audience for someone on HBO, said something inflammatory on her own podcast Women of the Hour on December 15 and the media seem to have discovered it. A fervent supporter of Planned Parenthood (under threat from Trump’s rabid misogynists working under the banner of family values, the sort that meant something under Eisenhower), Dunham said that she had never had an abortion but “wished she had.” Taken in a spirit of understanding and empathy, you can sort of see what she means. But it’s a bit like me saying I wish I’d worked down a Welsh coalmine so that I could more meaningfully offer my solidarity with miners. It sounds silly. And unnecessary. But what she said was that appearing at pro-choice events had implied to some that she, too, had experience of abortion, when in fact she didn’t. She wanted to make this case plain. But in saying she “wished” she’d had an abortion, they courted trouble. And she’s smart enough to know that it would be reported, and likely out of context.

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Glancing through social media this morning to track the story, and to track the outrage, most of it from women, much of it from anti-abortionists, I was dismayed, as ever, by the crudity of the dialogue. People made abortion jokes against her. They joked that she should have been aborted. They called her sitcom an abortion. They attacked her “clothing choices” (this came from a woman, naturally). They called her a “limousine liberal,” which seems to be the US equivalent of “champagne socialist”, and yes, I can see why. But what is just today’s passing storm of outrage reflects horribly on the state of discourse in the social media age. While some are raising money or awareness, others are calling people they’ve never met and will never meet insulting names. And then running away. (I used to observe this – that it’s like knocking on somebody’s front door and running away – but they don’t always run away any more, emboldened as they are by electoral affirmation.)

There is a lot to be concerned about in the world as it is today, rent asunder by military misadventure, religious extremism and the relentless grinding of humanity’s bones by capitalism. I can barely bring myself to read the newspapers or watch the news. But let’s go back to those cats and kittens. Thanks to Joey Essex and Danny Mac and Elaine Paige, money has been directly raised this Christmas for Cats Protection, an organisation reliant on volunteers and donations, and one among hundreds of equally deserving causes. It’s been another year whose atrocities are the names of the cities in which they were perpetrated: Aleppo, Berlin, Ankara, Brussels, Lahore, Istanbul, each briefly prefixed with the hashtag #PrayFor (tough luck expressing keystroke empathy if you don’t have a God to pray to). A presenter on the nightly Press Preview on Sky News struggles to establish what she keeps calling “the narrative” after the latest carve-up of human life. The “narrative” doesn’t change much from one execution to the next: pissed-off young man seeks to find meaning in a meaningless world using blunt instrument.

alan

’Tis the season to be jolly, but it’s harder than ever this year to block the “other stuff” out. Which is why I return to Alan the cat. He may have no teeth and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but someone saw him, read his expression amid all that black fur, and took him in. Gather your loved ones around you, whether two-legged, four-legged, three-legged, one-legged or no-legged, and concentrate on what you can do. Unless you work for counter-terrorism, or are harbouring a disaffected young man on a hair trigger, you can’t stop the next terrorist attack, or indeed the next appointment of a women-hating, climate change-denying, Roe Vs. Wade-repealing nutcase to Trump’s cabinet, or the next Daily Express headline howling in the wind about Brexit. But you can be nice to those around you. And those you pass in the street. After all, if Nick Cave can process the unfathomably tragic loss of a 15-year-old son in an accident and turn that tragedy into beautiful music, as he has done, we must cling to the possibility that good can come of bad.

And there are the animals. Be nice to the animals.

 

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I thought it time to publish my entire, exclusive, self-taken portfolio of Gogglebox portraits, which I collected on my Grand Tour, this spring, while writing Gogglebook: The Wit & Wisdom Of Gogglebox (Macmillan, £16.99 hardback, but cheaper if you order via Hive and support your local bookshop here). They are not, technically, selfies, but I took them myself, using what used to be known as a camera, and its “self timer” feature. I tried to stand my camera as close as possible to where the camera usually is when Gogglebox is being filmed. (Insight: at the Malones’ house in Manchester, I was invited to stand it on the box containing their dog Joe’s ashes – “Joe won’t mind,” Julie assured me.)

And then I inserted myself, Zelig style, into the frame. The results are mixed, artistically, but all record a unique, near-religious pilgrimage, which began at the Tappers’ in North London on April 26, and ended at the Michaels’ in Brighton on May 26. That represents a packed month of my life, and one I shall never forget. I calculated that I covered 1,942 miles as I zig-zagged from Nottinghamshire to Merseyside to Yorkshire to Derbyshire to Lancashire to Wiltshire to Greater London again and Sussex. It was achieved in a number of legs and took military planning. Not a single household let me down. (Except Steph and Dom, whose guest house I was unable to visit, due to their extra-curricular schedule.)

I hope you like the book. You have to be a Gogglebox fan to fully appreciate it, but if you are, there are delights both nostalgic and new within its covers, and the illustrations by Quinton Winter are phenomenal.

Here are the portraits, presented in the order in which they were taken.

GoggleboxRevKateGrahamGoggleboxJuneLeonGoggleboxJennyLeeGoggleboxBillJosefGoggleboxTheWoerdenwebersGoggleboxTheMalonesGoggleboxTheMoffattsGoggleboxTheSiddiquisGoggleboxStephenChrisGoggleboxSandySandraGoggleboxTheTappersGoggleboxGilesMaryGoggleboxTheMichaels

What a rare and lovely month it was. I shall never forget it.

The little pic of me surrounded by Sandy and Sandra was taken by professional photographer Nicky Johnston for Radio Times.

Whiter than white

TA107Just as the vegetable-growing year has a “hungry gap” in spring, when very little comes up, so, new produce in the TV year tends to drop off around now. As noted in the new, seasonally adjusted Telly Addict, Game Of Thrones, The Fall, Mad Men, The Good Wife, Nashville, all are either done, or close to being done, having been launched in either the autumn or the winter, when people watch telly and don’t go on holiday or sit in the garden or outside a pub in the evening. However, UK-Belgian epic The White Queen is here to save us for the next ten Sunday nights on BBC1; also this week, BBC2’s scientifically pointless but cat-filled Horizon: The Secret Life Of The Cat; Dates on C4; and the triumphant takeover of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart on Comedy Central by John Oliver from these islands (and from the same management as me). The British are coming. And some Belgians.

Secret dancing with cat

Here’s a preview of my Secret Dancing image for Edinburgh, taken on the photographic genius Steve Brown‘s houseboat studio on the River Thames on Tuesday. The finished shot will, of course, feature Steve’s exquisite post-production alchemy, but I like this off-duty one, as it features Oryx, one of his three cats. My Edinburgh experiment is coming together. I have now booked up a full hour-long preview show in London, at the Phoenix, on July 21, and I’m looking to slot in some others between now and August. I’m adding to the non-dancing part of my show all the time, basically by walking around from A to B – which is the loose theme of the show – noticing things and thinking too hard about things that don’t merit that amount of thought. Sometimes I actually remember to write the thoughts down in my tiny notebook. Sometimes I don’t, and they are lost forever, which is what usually happens to thoughts that aren’t worth having, or writing down. That’s all for now. More dates as I get them. The last thought I wrote was this: “Hepatitis B is too easy. All the kids have got Hepatitis A.” I don’t really know what it means. I wish I’d explained it to myself, but the handwriting suggests I put it down in haste. If you can think of a joke based upon it, let me know.

Photo: the photographic genius Steve Brown