Whatever | March 2007

Whatever | Food
Why does food packaging turn us all into kids?

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As a practising asthmatic I sensibly avoid dairy products, which are, as I am always happy to report at dinner parties, mucus-forming. As a substitute that’s altogether kinder in matters bronchial, I buy oat milk – to which the correct knockabout response is: how do you milk an oat? You’d better ask the company that makes Oatly in Landskrona, Sweden. While you’re about it, ask them why they have redesigned their once-authoritative, functional cartons so that they now look as if an errant child has scribbled all over them in felt tip?

Opening my fridge, I am greeted with foreshadowed lettering reminiscent of a fourth-form pencil case declaiming, “An ode to oats”, under which folksy eulogy is a rudimentary drawing of some kernels (“Oats look good too!” it says). Next to the illustrated serving suggestion on the side of the box – Oatly over some cereals – a further squiggled message says, “Feel free to use a bigger bowl.” Because the photo of the bowl is very small! Stop it, you’re killing me.

The irony is, Oatly isn’t killing me. It’s free from added sugar, low in saturated fat and contains oat fibre. And it certainly doesn’t block my pipes with pesky mucus. A thoughtful and health-giving elixir with a grown-up function as a lactose alternative, it is nonetheless marketed at me as if I have the mental age of seven.

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There is something insidious and deeply patronising at work here. Take Innocent smoothies – and you do, with over a million of those little plastic bottles sold every week. A joyous little product (fruit drink made from real fruit, not concentrate, I’m glugging from one now) but packaged to make you feel as if you are sitting in a high chair and being spoon-fed with talk of a train going into the tunnel. Those wacky ingredients lists (“half a pressed mango, half a mashed banana, one double-decker bus”), quirky claims (“NO stabilisers, NO added sugar, NO funny business – and if we do you can tell our mums”) and ticklesome instructions (“please shake me before pouring – it helps if the cap’s on”). PLENTY of added irony.

You might argue that this matey, idiosyncratic spin helps remind us that Innocent started out as a trestle table at a rock festival and wishes nobly to retain this co-operative, back-of-a-van ethic. Innocent, named Employer of the Year by the Guardian in 2005, makes great play of ethical fruit-sourcing and giving 10 per cent of their profits to charity, so no need to “tell their mums” on that score, but let’s not kid ourselves that they make their smoothies in a kitchen blender any more. In 2005, the company posted a turnover of £38m; last year, £75m. In December, Innocent appointed the former head of brands at Nestlé as its marketing director. The twee TV ads and funny cartons (“once opened consume within 4 days or we’ll come round and get you”) are there to distract us: a knitted tea cosy over capitalism’s iron fist.

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Blame Ben and Jerry. Overturning decades of clearly-defined food and drink packaging that was either squarely aimed at kids (Coco Pops, Cresta, Turkey Drummers), or mums and dads (Black Magic, Cointreau, Vienetta), the hairy dairymen farsightedly bridged the “kidult” divide with their cartoony ice cream. Small Businessmen of the Year by 1988, the Vermont-based Deadheads sold out to corporate giant Unilever in 2000 for a chunky-monkey $326m. Peddling the long-defunct myth of two old hippies throwing handfuls of pecans about in a shed thick with aromatic smoke, the combined corporate stamp of Play School design and puerile, punning flavours – at least two to date named after the Dave Matthews Band – continues to work its magic on consumers old enough to know better. Unless, of course, as we get closer to our own mortality, self-deception on such matters helps to get us through the day.

The infantilising influence of Ben & Jerry’s is everywhere, from those irritating Japanese creatures making us buy 3G mobile phones, to E4, with all that self-conscious talk of “your telly-box.” The franchised coffee-shop chain Puccino’s scribbles on everything from its paper cups to the walls of its outlets. I smiled the first time they served me a cappuccino with what is labelled on the wrapper a “stupid little biscuit”, but like the wacky outgoing ansaphone message, the funny car sticker and the Gromit tie, its comedic levity can wear pretty thin.

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The worst culprits remain those brands seeking to put on an ethical front, whose message is, look, we’re just mucking about here, it’s not about the money or anything. Firefly health tonics, becoming ubiquitous, are also packaged with added-on scribbles (“Wakey wakey!”). Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent, writes a self-effacing business column for the Guardian: “If you went up to any member of our commercial team right now and asked them about budget forecasting, they’d probably grimace slightly.” Yeah, because work sucks, right? Oh, and we’ve just opened an office in Copenhagen. More profits. Bummer.

We’re not daft. We know that Sara Lee doesn’t get her hands doughy making the cakes and that the Laughing Cow, kept in an unnatural state of permanent pregnancy to provide milk for cheese triangles, barely raises a smile. Ben & Jerry’s is horrible, but I buy Innocent, Oatly, Firefly – to quote Bill Hicks, I love these products. What I don’t buy is this American anti-corporate “campus” culture. I once met the Executive Vice President of Strategy, Imagineering & Futurology, aged 45, at Orange. The door of his office simply said “Future Boy”. It had a Space Hopper in it.

Published in Word magazine, June 2007

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Whatever | September 2008

Whatever | Festivals If blanket TV coverage of music festivals is to rival sport, where’s its equivalent of Alan Hansen? WhateverGlasto2008 Back in the studio after a lacklustre nil-nil draw in Group C between France and Romania, BBC pundit Alan Hansen looked set to bust out of his pressed white shirt as he declared, with a degree of overstatement, “That was the worst game I’ve ever seen in my life.” Harbour a grudging respect for him or hate him, his assessment must have chimed with the thoughts of many Euro 2008 viewers at home. Punditry in motion. As it happened, three weeks of goalmouth incident, questionable pronunciations of Xavi and jibes about the astrology-based decisions of the French coach later, the Euro 2008 final coincided with blanket TV coverage of another heavily sponsored outdoor summer spectacle, Glastonbury. While BBC1 showed the entertaining clash between Germany and Spain in one field, over on BBC3 it was the Fratellis, Kings of Leon and Buddy Guy in another. The constant refrain of those committed enough to attend major sporting events and/or music festivals is, “You had to be there.” But for the majority, television is our best chance of a ringside seat. Since I stopped going after Glastonbury ’95, I have been the target armchair festivalgoer as the Beeb’s coverage has expanded like cosmic insulation foam to fill all nooks of the digisphere. As with Wimbledon, you can even press the red button and select from a multi-screen menu which game, set or match you wish to view. In many ways – most of them logistical and hygienic – it really is better than being there. WhateverGlasto2008 However, this comparison between sport and live music on TV throws up a problem. As one gradually morphs into the other – slick, branded, omnipresent, relentlessly cross-promoted and with saturation point never too far around the next corner – the big difference between the two becomes ever more apparent. There is one crucial element missing from festival TV. I’m talking about its total dereliction of critical judgement. Imagine if, during this year’s fulsome Glastonbury coverage, Mark Radcliffe had swivelled round on his backstage hay bail and exclaimed to Jo Whiley, “Well, that was the worst set I’ve seen on the Pyramid Stage in my life.” It’s unthinkable. Alan Hansen can call the Polish defence “abysmal”; Radcliffe must describe Shakin’ Stevens as “a trooper.” This is not a criticism of Mark or Jo or any other presenter, whose job it is to talk everything up, in order to justify the vast sums invested in securing rights, setting up outside-broadcast shop in Pilton for a week and supplying content to BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, BBC News, Radio 1, 5 Live, 6 Music, 1 Xtra, BBC online and BBCi. But I can vouch for the fact that, once a broadcaster is onsite, the tendency is simply to cheerlead. “The atmosphere is amazing!” “It’s shaping up to be a vintage Glastonbury!” “It’s not just about the music.” It’ll be the same for T In The Park, Reading and Leeds, Cambridge … TV and radio coverage is less like editorial, more like advertorial. The irony in all this round-the-clock, welly-wearing Pollyannaism is that music fans are no strangers to music criticism. Whether old enough to have been raised on the sturm und drang of the weekly music press or new enough to be fluent in the snap judgements of blog and Facebook, the type of person who will actually sit down to watch Glastonbury on TV (and there are 1.9 million in peak-time, down to a respectable 500,000 after 11pm) is exactly the type who would welcome at least a heated debate on the merits of Jay-Z, rather than to hear the party line parroted (ie. that he “won the crowd over”). WhateverGlasto2008 Sporting pundits are there to dissect a match; to marvel at the way Torres lifted Xavi’s pass over the keeper’s legs, but also to bemoan the ref’s decision not to book Silva after that surreptitious headbutt on Podolski. Why are we not grown up enough to hear the same degree of expert critique from football’s festival counterparts? In fairness, this won’t come from DJs like Jo or Zane or Fearne, ambassadors for the Corporation with future guest bookings to protect, but can a substrata of critics not be arranged in a studio to offer something a little more incisive? “The atmosphere seems oddly corporate and stilted this year.” “Is there a festival the Verve aren’t playing?” “Is Beth Ditto still at it?” Actually, a couple of years ago, Jo Whiley did break ranks and offer a unique glimpse of editorial. After the Alison Goldfrapp set, she said, “It just goes to show that you can be thin and still have cellulite.” Not even Hansen would be that incisive.

Published in Word magazine, September 2008

Whatever | November 2008

Whatever | VE Day with Vodafone
Can any anniversary, event or initiative go by unbranded?

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The carnival atmosphere on VE Day, 8 May 1945, was hastily improvised on a ration-hardened whim and spread by word of mouth. The ad hoc spirit was summed up when, lacking a public address system, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham put a radio on the window sill of his office so that the gathering crowds could hear Churchill’s speech. But the pianos, gramophones and trestle tables gamely manhandled into the middle of the street would not be enough for today’s civic cheerleaders.

It was Mark E Smith who famously listened to a Verve record in the early 90s and muttered, “God help us if there’s a war.” A generation later, one can’t help but echo his sentiments, but for different reasons. Should some new Reich threaten the security of Europe, Britain would stand no chance; not because of the unfit state of its indie conscripts, but because our priorities would now surely be with forming a steering group to put out to tender the contract for branding of the war and a series of sub-committees to forward-plan the Public Private Partnership-funded post-war celebrations, scheduled for Christmas, naturally.

What a shame we would never get to experience VE Day Party In The Park with “top bands, special guests and Fearne Cotton”, and blanket live coverage on BBC1, BBC3 and Radio 2. The flypast and firework display would remain an idealised, computer-generated mock-up in a media pack, as would the walk of champions, the satellite-linked giant screens in major cities, a living memorial created through contemporary dance, a special edition of Strictly Come Fighting and sponsored livery on banners, buses and wristbands: “V FOR VICTORY WITH V FOR VODAFONE.”

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Because no event, anniversary or initiative can pass unmarked, unnamed or unbranded in this autistic age we live in, whether it’s 9/11, 7/7, Liverpool 08, Love Music Hate Racism, Concert For Diana, Broken Britain, America Decides, The Big Food Fight, The Big Read, The Big Clean Up or National Take Your Dog To Work Day, all competing for our already foreshortened attention spans like unlicensed cab touts. Even the latest recession has been branded: the Credit Crunch. Does that mean giant foam rubber hands for anyone evicted or laid off?

The worst of it is London 2012, the year itself logo-stamped (“because now 2012 isn’t just four digits,” states the Royal Mint, imperially, advertising its Handover Ceremony £2 Coin from just £6.95). As we hurtle towards it with all the speed of an Integrated Environment and Sustainability Management System-audited JCB full of East End dirt, we’re expected to stay not just enthused but patriotically so, for four years, thanks to what has already been branded the Cultural Olympiad, divided into Ceremonies, Major Projects and, I quote, Inspire Mark Projects (whatever that means – and who’s Mark?). It’s not all fun and games.

Rarely do I see something on TV which makes me want to re-enact the legendary protest of lorry driver James Holmes of Waltham Abbey, who kicked in his £380 colour television set on 1 December, 1976 when the Sex Pistols swore at Bill Grundy. “I was so angry and disgusted with this filth that I took a swing with my boot,” Mr Holmes told the Mirror. My own boot hovered within inches of the flat-screen during the 2012 Olympic Handover Concert in the Mall, sponsored by Visa. Never mind 9/11 – the world changed forever in the three minutes it took “indie pop” three-piece Scouting For Girls to cover London Calling by the Clash.

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Before a 40,000-strong afternoon crowd of mostly tourists, this mostly harmless bunch, dressed for the garden, nonetheless crystallised our own proud nation’s addiction to event coordination. The theme of the gig was songs about sport and winning. We Are The Champions and Nobody Does It Better had been taken, so Scouting For Girls opted to turn the greatest rock song of the punk era into a mayoral, flag-waving credit-card singalong. London Calling was not dredged from Joe Strummer’s angry guts to commemorate a geographical decision by an international committee; it is a howl of pain about the impending apocalypse, as foreseen from angles as diverse as flood (“London is drowning”), famine (“the wheat is growing thin”), and accident (“a nuclear error”). This Chas & Dave-style rendition was extraordinary indeed. The haunting line about “the one with the yellowy eyes” became … and I can’t believe I am about to write this … “the one with the 19 gold eyes.” Yes. Because Team GB won 19 gold medals.

Get it? If not, a media pack will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, send extra Sustainability Management System-audited JCBs of dirt, because Joe Strummer is turning in his grave.

Published in Word magazine, November 2008

Andrew’s Columns

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There once was a magazine called The Word, although I always called it Word, as that it what it was originally called. Had I never written a single word for Word, I would have been its most ardent admirer (and subscriber), and would have lamented its passing with the same moistened eyes. As it happens, I did write for it, but I looked forward to the new issue arriving every month for 114 consecutive months between February 2003 and August 2012 not just to see how my words looked on the hallowed page, but to read all the other words by all the other smart and witty people on all the other pages.

Records show that I began writing a regular page column for Word at the very end of 2004, initially about TV and called Telly Addict. (Not a bad name.) In November 2006, that column’s brief was expanded to include … everything. It was renamed Whatever to reflect this. Whatever ran until the end of 2010, when it stopped. I was sad about this, but pulled myself together and carried on writing reviews and features for my favourite magazine until its final issue, including the third before last cover story, about the Stone Roses. (My only other cover story was Elbow, both pictured.)

As the magazine did not reprint its articles or reviews on the website (which instead predominantly acted as a water cooler for the Word massive), I find I am sitting on an awful lot of my own published writing that I remain very proud of. With the passing of the years, some of it even takes on a socio-historical sheen. So, without rhyme or reason – and mainly because I chanced up a random column from 2010 about the disruption to life as we know it caused by an Icelandic volcano while clearing out my email’s “sent” folder this morning – I thought it might be fun, if not necessarily an actual public service, to reproduce some of these columns here.

I hope you enjoy them, and that they bring back some fond memories of an era when you could publish magazines and a loyal knot of the discerning would buy them.

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An index of columns randomly posted so far:

June 2010 | Memories of the Great Volcano Inconvenience
November 2008 | The branding of everything
September 2008 | Unquestioning TV festival coverage
March 2007 | Health food packaged for idiots
June 2009 | The age of the overstatement
April 2009 | Choosing a daily newspaper
November 2010 | The death of the printed word
April 2010 | 3D or not 3D?
August 2008 | Barack Obama
January 2009 | Grey squirrels
July 2007 | Indie and the charts

Film 2001

Rather belatedly, I am drawing your attention to the fact that my weekly film column in Radio Times now goes up online automatically. My role at the magazine has mutated constantly since I became Film Editor in 2001 (bloody hell, that’s almost ten years!), certainly in terms of what goes on the page: my column has been a straightforward extended review of the Film Of The Week, then it became that plus a sort of industry insider piece, then it became a longer, broader-based “themed” piece (and my simpering face appeared at the top of the page), then back to Film Of The Week again – in fact, two: Terrestrial and Satellite, then an opinion piece again, which became unwieldy, then Terrestrial and Freeview, and now, under our dynamic, Fleet Street-schooled new editor, it has expanded to a pretty weighty, 600-word column, based around and spun off the Film Of The Week, with a personal angle built in. Phew. (So when I confessed that I used to hate musicals, but changed my mind in my 30s, the moderately misleading headline was: How I fell in love at 34 – eek!) Anyway, judging by the paucity of comments left after the online version of the column, gathered under the heading Film Watch, its presence there is little noticed. So I’m linking to it. As a public service.