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

Whatever | June 2010

Whatever | The Great Volcano Inconvenience
God help us if there’s a war

WhateverVolcano22010

Wanda Jackson, the 74-year-old First Lady of Rockabilly, was stuck in Germany and couldn’t make an interview on my 6 Music show; the comedian Sarah Millican had to cancel an Edinburgh preview I had tickets for at a North London theatre pub because she was unable to fly back from the Melbourne Comedy Festival; and my asthma was slightly aggravated for a few days. Welcome to my Volcano Crisis.

It all started when, in the early hours of Wednesday April 14, Shetland Islanders detected the smell of rotten eggs in the air. By the next day, like an errant child, Britain was “grounded”, as the sulphuric cloud of volcanic ash caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland started pluming across Europe. The Great Volcano Inconvenience had begun, and nothing would ever be the same again …

Until the following Tuesday, when a BA flight from Vancouver touched down at Heathrow, the skies started to refill with metal birds and Sky started to fill with scintillating footage of ordinary people coming through arrivals halls looking a bit inconvenienced. Willie Walsh, union-intolerant CEO of British Airways admitted it would take “weeks” to resume normal service, but promised, “we will make every effort to get our people back home,” as if perhaps he really was airlifting refugees or troops, not running a £8.9bn business for profit.

During the Six Day Inconvenience, 95,000 flights were cancelled and an estimated 150,000 Britons trapped on holiday. I am not without sympathy for those who missed weddings, or lost money, or, in the case of the Kenyan flower farmers, had to sit and watch tonnes of roses bound for our Tesco Metros and BP Connects rotting under the Nairobi sun, but for the majority of us, it was lovely. Not a single plane In the sky for the best part of a week. As Stuart Jeffries hymned in the Guardian as he lay on the dewy grass at Kew amid magnolias and witch hazel, “The sky is filled with good news. One of the world’s busiest flight paths, that normally sullies much of west London with howling jet engines from 6am, is silent.”

WhateverVolcano22010

What prelapsarian paradise was this? On the Thursday, ITV suspended all adverts for the 90 minute duration of the first leaders’ election debate, merely adding to this surreal glimpse of a frankly more agreeable world. The word “chaos” reigned. Not actual chaos, just the word. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was stuck in New York. The Cribs, Delphic and Frightened Rabbit failed to make Coachella in California. Whitney Houston discovered that there is a lower ebb than appearing in the Bravo reality show Being Bobby Brown when she took the ferry from Holyhead in order to make a gig in Dublin. The Iron Man 2 world premiere was switched from the Westfield Shopping Centre in London to a presumably less rubbish Los Angeles. My friend Stuart Maconie, stuck in Venice, switched into travel writer mode and provided Twitter followers with a witty, illustrated commentary on his journey back to Mark Radcliffe by train, via Milan, Zurich and Paris (“Erstfeld station. The Didcot Parkway of the Alps”).

Come Saturday, when constant plane noise over my neck of London usually taints the summer’s first glass of rose on the patio, I’d stopped feeling guilty for enjoying the respite. A hyperventilating media and our glad-handing politicians had combined to turn the ash cloud into a new Dunkirk (“no-fly misery”), with Gordon Brown promising warships and the Daily Mail fortuitously selling World War II In Colour DVDs off the page. We Brits do not have a lot to be proud of these days, but we still have “pluck” and “resilience”, a myth reliably peddled in any self-started crisis. We certainly showed some world-class queuing with bags at Calais and Santander in our darkest hour.

WhateverVolcano22010

The clamour to present the Six Day Holiday Extension as some kind of duty-free 9/11 masked the real story: our perverted view of cheap and easy air travel as a basic human right. (Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, one telegenically stranded celeb, was rare in admitting that the experience of having to endure five unplanned days in Mauritius had made him realise that flying is “a privilege”.) I’m not the planet’s most assiduous green but I have read a lot of books on environmental matters, including a couple of particularly terrifying ones on peak oil, and it doesn’t take a genius to foresee a foreseeable future where there’s not actually enough fuel to support our decadent devotion to economic growth and stag weekends in Prague.

The Six Day Chillout – quickly blamed on overreaction by the “health and safety” brigade – was an unprecedented and glorious glimpse of a post-Ryanair world. Like the “marooned” holidaymakers, it was all brought home for me in the words of Samson Lukoba, legal and ethical trading manager at Oserian, a vast floral factory perched on the shores Kenya’s Lake Naivasha: “The British, they want flowers every day, even just for their houses, not necessarily for special occasions.”

This was a special occasion. As if choreographed by James Lovelock, whose Gaia theory it so beautifully illustrated, April’s volcano – or “vilecano” as it was anthropomorphically christened by the silly old Mirror – showed us a world in which we must eat tiny bags of dry roasted peanuts and get deep vein thrombosis at home. And grow our own bloody flowers.

Published in Word magazine, June 2010

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

Writer’s blog, Week 29, Friday

Diary1979

It’s Friday. Not quite the end of the working week, as I have to write and clip Telly Addict tomorrow. Yesterday, I found myself in Hastings, just for one day, and – a complete stranger in town – I was surprised and delighted to run into an old friend from Chelsea School of Art, who was in the year above me and whom I may not have seen since the 90s, maybe even the 80s: Peter Quinnell (whose website is here should you wish to commission one of his fabulously arch collages, which he has been perfecting for 25 years). The reason I mention it, is that he called me “Andy.” Because when he knew me, in the mid-80s, I was called Andy.

I dug out my 1979 diary, above, as it marks the first transition from my birth name Andrew, to what I felt was the cooler and more casual Andy. As you can see, I carefully Letrasetted “Andrew Collins” onto the Boots page-a-day diary to confirm ownership, presumably when I first got it, for Christmas 1978. However, this was the year punk broke in Northampton (sorry, but it was), and certainly the year puberty broke in my endocrine system, hence the later branding, in punk-styled ransom lettering, carefully sealed under Sellotape: “Andy Collins. Private!”

The name-change, aged 14, was non-negotiable. It went on all my exercise books. I practised writing it, and elongated it into an artistic “signature”. I was saying to the world in a first flush of defiant individualism: Andrew – he dead.

It’s weird to be called Andy again. But perfectly normal for Pete to do so, as I was sealed in the aspic of time as far as he’s concerned. Still Andy. Still a student. Twenty eight years have passed since he graduated from Chelsea; 27 since I did. We all reinvent ourselves to a degree, although he was instantly recognisable when I saw him unlocking his car on Hastings’ Old High Street, and he only had to look twice to recognise me coming towards him. I must have looked something like this when he last saw me:

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And now I look like this.

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Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego … If you can identify which film that quote comes from, you’ll be ahead of me here. Yesterday I was tasked with telling the 46-year story of the Planet Of The Apes franchise for Radio Times, to tie in with the fact that the second rebooted entry in the series Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is imminent, and the first, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, is showing in two Saturdays’ time on C4. This is the kind of piece I am retained by the magazine to write. Most of the time, the film section is headed up by a straightforward actor/director junket interview, but occasionally, it remains unfilled until the last minute – Wednesday afternoon – when I must step in and provide a 750-800 word feature from scratch. It’s a bracing commitment.

As previously stated, I do not romanticise my own writing ability. If anything, I have delusions of adequacy. But I know I can write quickly, and to a reasonable professional, spell-checked, word-counted standard, and I never play the prima donna or tortured artist. Brief me at 2pm and I’ll deliver 800 words by 3.30pm. (Luckily for me, the sub-editors at Radio Times are wizards, so you’re always going to look better on the page than you ought.) Anyway, the reason I bring up the Apes feature is that, rather than just trot out the story, I tried to personalise it. This is encouraged. I reflected on the early 80s and an era in which my school- and then college-pal Paul Garner and I were obsessed with movie makeup effects.

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This imported 1983 issue of horror/fantasy/sci-fi journal Cinefantastique, which we both pored over as it were a holy sacrament, sums up our religion during that devoted period. In gory detail, its vast cover story unpicks makeup genius Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film Paul and I were dying to see. Although both of us loved drawing and caricatures – Paul actually produced a full-size, Mad magazine-influenced spoof of Planet Of The Apes (one of our favourite films) – he was the ingenious one who also moved into 3D model and mask design. I just sat on the sidelines and thrilled to his amateur triumphs: a full-head werewolf mask, a Woody Allen forehead and glasses (which I wore in a play). He went on to earn his living as a commercial artist, storyboarding and creating incredible bespoke prints, usually with a horror/fantasy/sci-fi theme. Once you’ve seen Peter Quinnell’s work, you might want to browse Paul’s.

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See, there’s a link here, and it was too good not to get down while I sit here in the Library. In writing about my fanboy love of makeup artists for next week’s Radio Times (they’ve headlined it, “Confessions Of A Fanboy”, which it kind of isn’t), I reminisced about my friend Paul, who pursued his love of art and design and made it his profession. Although I’ve seen him on and off into the current century, he will still think of me as “Andy”. In visiting Hastings and bumping into another friend, from college, who also called me “Andy”, I was once again reminded that I never pursued my love of art and design into a full-time career – although it opened the door for me to journalism, so I couldn’t have got here (wherever here is) without it.

I reverted from Andy back to Andrew in the late 80s, when I sought to establish myself as a professional illustrator, and had an invoice book and an accountant and my first answering machine. I drew the covers of these.

Puzzled

I seem to remember I was discouraged by the design agency that employed me from signing the artwork, as it might be considered self-aggrandising by the client, Trinity-Mirror. So after all that fannying around about Andrew and Andy and Andrew (and, at one pseudonymous stage, Boone), I was anonymous.

I was the man with no name. The unknown artist. It squashes a man’s ego.

 

Slow shows

TA155Gj It’s all a bit behind schedule this week, with Telly Addict not recorded until Tuesday morning due to the pesky Bank Holiday and a “technical issue” holding up its launch. It eventually loaded on Wednesday (although the Guardian has been kind enough to leave a nice plug for it up until this morning). Anyway, in it, the amusing nature of Jack Bauer saying the word “pub” in 24 on Sky1; a fine new historical drama, set in 1996, from the BBC1, From There To Here; the same channel’s one-off karaoke tribute to Dylan Thomas for his centenary, A Poet In New York; Gogglebox reviewing Gogglebox winning a Bafta on C4; and a fast look at The Fast Show Special on BBC2.

Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane in Boss. Photograph: Chuck Hodes/S

Also, in other Guardian news, and in a much faster turnaround, an email arrived on Tuesday telling me that the box set of Boss (both seasons, currently still showing on More4) was out in June. On the same day I asked my friends at the Guardian Arts Desk if they’d like me to write about it for G2’s excellent Your Next Box Set slot. They said yes. I wrote it on Wednesday and delivered it on the same day. And it’s in the actual paper today. Hooray. You can read it here.

Goodnight, sweethearts

 

A very sad day. The Word magazine, which I never called The Word magazine because I knew it when it was just Word magazine, has closed. The staff found out last night, just after “passing” the latest issue, Word 114, which when it comes out in a week or so, will be the last issue, also. The announcement by David Hepworth came this morning. It was a shock to us all, reader and contributor alike.

I’m kind of guessing I don’t need to spell out what was so unique and warm and special about what was, to all intents and purposes, a music mag but, to many other intents and purposes, was so much more than that. I suspect the crossover between the readers of this blog and the readers of Word is pretty substantial, and not just because I’ve written for the magazine since its inception, nine years ago.

It was launched, along with the independent publisher that published it, Development Hell, by people I’d known and worked under and alongside at what was once called Emap in the 1990s: David Hepworth and Jerry Perkins, with Mark Ellen as editor. Mark and another key launch figure Andrew Harrison had been my editors at Select when I first defected from the NME in 1993. Dave, an editorial director at Emap, subsequently interviewed me for my first job at Q. The four of us attended the same awards ceremonies, conferences and meetings for all of the five years I worked there. When they themselves defected, it was like coming home being asked to write for Word, which was their dream project. (For further crossover, gentleman scribe Paul Du Noyer had been there at the launch of Q and Mojo; “Seventies” Mike Johnson had worked as a sub at Q when I was editor; Jonathan Sellers, art editor, had been art director at Select when I was features editor; contributor Barry McIlheney had been all of our bosses, MD of Emap; contributor and creator of the always-excellent trivia page at the back, John Naughton, had been a key man at Q; other contributors with Emap form included Stuart Maconie, Jim Irvin, Mixmag‘s Joe Muggs and David Quantick. You can see why Word felt like a nine-year, post-grad PhD for so many of us.)

Thanks to its enviable address book, the mag was also able to get legends of the calibre of Charles Shaar Murray and Danny Baker regularly onto the page. And let us not overlook the writers and editors that Word magazine did not bring with them in the boot from the world of Emap, but who became in many ways even more vital to the constant turnover of ideas and wise prose, some staff, mostly freelancers: Rob Fitzpatrick, Jude Rogers, Kate Mossman, Matt Hall (now my boss at the Guardian, then the only man who could work a podcast), Nige Tassell, James Medd, Chris Bray, Graeme Thompson, Ali Caterall, and the mighty Fraser Lewry, an icon in his own way. Sorry if I’ve forgotten anybody.

I don’t have the first issue to hand, with Nick Cave on the cover, but I have a funny feeling I didn’t have anything in it. Certainly, a long piece about how to write for EastEnders was my maiden contribution. It was in 2004 that Mark gave me my own column, a TV review initially, called Telly Addict (hmmm, nice title), but this transmuted into a column about whatever was on my mind in late 2006, called Whatever. No one had ever given me a regular column before. It occasionally attracted criticism and ire in the letters pages and in the forums, but it’s better to be noticed than not. It was an education. (It taught me to keep some of my views to myself.)

Although Word was aimed at a demographic too old to worry about being cool but not old enough to kick the habit of loving and purchasing music old and new, it embraced technology (not least because of Andrew Harrison’s magpie instinct for such stuff), and its website and podcast helped to grow Word, or The Word, into a brand, a community, a way of life. It rewarded subscribers, stretched to an iPad edition, put on its own splendid gigs, carried a not-quite-but-almost-NewYorker-esque amount of words, and – perhaps its most significant badge of honour, for me – put illustrations on the cover, some as sublimely beautiful as this one.

I was lucky enough to be part of the circle of trust, from which regular podcast guests were plucked, although if they hadn’t invited me up to Word Towers in Islington for a while, I had no qualms about asking to be invited. If you heard me shooting the merry breeze with Mark, and Dave, and Fraser, and Kate, it was generally because I’d emailed Dave and said, “Hey, if you’re short of a podcast guest … ” (I expect other regulars felt the same way.) But you didn’t have to work for the magazine to be in its club. The “Massive” were brain-picked from very early on, and often held shoulder-high and paraded around the place, whether as forumeers or gig regulars or providers of citizen copy. In many ways, Word had to stay small (or “niche”) to survive – a bit like 6 Music, which seemed to chime with the magazine’s attitude and plurality and launched at roughly the same time. But being small also means you’re vulnerable.

Development Hell survives. It publishes Mixmag, which is perhaps even more niche, but niche enough to attract niche advertisers and tick over. Long may it support the company, which remains essentially independent, and run by good people. The printed word? We all know it’s an endangered concept. But we don’t wish to see magazines we’ve grown to look forward to arriving on our doormats, and which we cherish, and fondle, and interact with, and rely upon for sustenance in an increasingly vanilla, pasteurised, market-led world, disappear from view.

As a writer, I think I might have possibly done some of my best writing for Word. If so, it’s because a) they gave their writers the freedom to stretch their legs, but not to overindulge and only to a clear brief, b) you were always sensitively but firmly edited (Mark may seem like a soft touch, and he kind of is, but he’ll also let you know if you’ve gone wrong, or created a cul-de-sac of solipsism, and has spiked at least one of my columns for this reason in the past), and c) you were mainly asked to review things you thought you might like. Since very little of what we all wrote was published online, it is for collectors of the magazines to look back on. I might publish a couple of my columns on this blog, just so they’re out there. But maybe not the one about squirrel racism, or the one about militant atheism. (I only wrote two covers stories for Word, pictured above, and they both made me feel inordinately proud, and a bit like a journalist again.)

We must raise a glass to this great institution. It’s like a library has closed, as I wrote on the Word forum this morning (and where a condolence book is expanding faster than Prince William’s bald patch), but a library where you knew all the staff and they knew you, and where there was a bar, and live music, and a quiz, and you never got charged if you brought a book back late, as long as you were prepared to sit down and have a constructive and tangential dialogue about it over a pint.

 

 

Amusing sexism

My old boss James Brown has launched an online magazine called Sabotage Times and is asking like-minded souls and acquaintances to contribute suitable, unpublished material. I discovered a pretty exhaustive article about Benny Hill I wrote in the late 90s and updated it. You can read it here. I actually wrote it for XL, an Emap men’s magazine that folded soon after. (They published an interview of mine with Jack Dee and a similar hagiography of Sid James while they were still running.) The Benny Hill, which I later failed to flog to GQ, is a pretty straight, factual biography of the man, which I remember researching in those prelapsarian times before broadband and Wikipedia by – read it and weep, youngsters! – tracking down books in secondhand bookshops and buying them, then taking them home and reading them and copying salient facts down. Ah, the age of innocence. Still, nice to see it in print. There’s plenty of other stuff to read there, too.